After nearly six hours of alternate speechmaking at each other - negotiations never really came up - U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarig Aziz ended their mini-summit in failure. War in the Middle East seems much closer and it is increasingly hard to see how it can be averted.

Much hope had been invested in the Baker-Aziz meeting, perhaps unrealistically too much, but the utter failure of the talks was a deep disappointment, nonetheless. Worse, it leaves very few other options for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.The Jan. 15 United Nation's deadline for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait is now less than a week away, although reaching the deadline does not trigger an automatic attack against Iraq. It merely means that after that date, the United States and its allies could strike with U.N. backing.

Of course, the question of President Bush's war powers and the congressional right to declare war still hasn't been resolved. Congress has begun to take up the issue, but whether Congress will take a stand or simply duck is not clear. Failure of the talks could actually strengthen the president's hand with Congress.

The one-day meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, came up totally empty. About the only positive points were that Baker and Aziz did not exchange insults or walk out of the sessions. There was no table pounding or yelling. But Iraq offered no alternative proposals and only tried to link the invasion of Kuwait with Israeli-occupied lands. Aziz refused to forward a letter from Bush to Saddam Hussein, saying the letter was "impolite."

As Bush put it, there was not "one inch" of progress made toward solving the Persian Gulf confrontation.

Since the brutal Aug. 2 Iraq invasion of Kuwait, nothing has really changed. For five months, the U.N. has demanded that Iraq pull out and Saddam has refused. Embargoes, high-level talks, military buildups, deadlines - nothing has altered the basic situation that existed from the beginning.

In a 45-minute press conference after the talks, Aziz never once mentioned Kuwait and talked only of linking the "situation" with the problem of the Israeli-occupied territories.

Mostly it was an exercise in trying to tell the world to "look at that other guy over there" and never mind about the brutal invasion of Kuwait. He also threatened an attack against Israel if the U.N. coalition resorted to force against Iraq.

Despite the failure of the talks, the president insisted it wasn't too late for a peaceful outcome, although those words sound increasingly hollow. A diplomatic frenzy already has started, led by France and other parties. The United Nations secretary general also is planning an emergency trip to Baghdad in an effort to prevent war.

But given Iraq's total rejection of the U.N. resolution calling for its withdrawal from Kuwait and the utter lack of flexibility on the issue, the chances for a diplomatic solution are increasingly remote.

Bush isn't going to back down and leave Iraq in Kuwait. Politically and even morally, that is not possible. And Saddam appears adamant about refusing to give up his conquest. If that doesn't change by Jan. 15, the only remaining question will be: When does the shooting start?