America's mood today is appropriately somber and sober.

With the authority that Congress gave President Bush to wage war in the Persian Gulf, there's the heightened prospect of more American blood being spilled in a conflict far from this nation's shores.But there's another, more positive way of looking at the historic votes Saturday in the Senate and House.

By meeting the constitutional requirement on declaring war, Congress left no room for thinking that America is weak or vacillating. Consequently, this nation's lawmakers strengthened the White House's hand in trying to persuade Saddam Hussein that Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait or face a fight it cannot win.

Though Saddam is ruthless, he is not irrational. He knows that withdrawal from Kuwait would spare Iraq from a conflict likely to reduce it from a bully to a weakling in the Middle East. He knows that withdrawal likely would be followed by international efforts to address Iraq's grievances in the Persian Gulf. Consequently, there's still reason to hope that diplomacy can resolve the crisis in the Persian Gulf before the world's patience is finally exhausted.

Even if Iraq only starts withdrawing from Kuwait by the Jan. 15 deadline set by the United Nations for a complete pullout, there would be ample justification for the allied military forces arrayed against Baghdad to stay their hand.

Meanwhile, let's be clear about the implications of the way Congress voted.

The vote reflects the realization that the economic sanctions being imposed against Iraq may inflict considerable pain but seldom bring a nation to its knees. Consequently, they are of little use except as an expression of collective outrage.

Likewise, the vote reflects the realization that Congress could not have just sat on its hands without:

- Impairing whatever effectiveness the United Nations may have as an international peace-keeping force.

- Risking a speedy demise to the useful new coalition between the United States and much of the Arab world.

- Casting doubt on America's reliability as an ally.

- Encouraging further aggression by failing to punish Iraq for its clear violation of international law in Kuwait.

Yes, war is still a scourge. But sometimes there are worse alternatives. One of them would be the kind of "peace" that let a brutal tyrant determine much of the world's standard of living by getting a stranglehold on the supply and price of oil. Another unacceptable alternative would be the kind of "peace" that was bought by sacrificing the principle that no country has the right to overrun and annex another.

Meanwhile, President Bush deserves considerable credit for the way he has dealt with the Persian Gulf crisis so far by holding the international coalition against Iraq together, keeping Congress informed and mustering solid public support.

Now this nation's highest leader also deserves to be kept in the forefront of Americans' prayers. May we be united and strong in pursuit of international justice. And may the olive branch quickly prevail.