By suspending allied attacks in the Persian Gulf Wednesday evening, President Bush has done much more than just show restraint born of strength and sweeping victory.
He also has:- Demonstrated that great power can be tempered by great self-discipline and shown a basic decency toward a vanquished foe that stands in sharp contrast to Iraq's brutal rule-or-ruin treatment of Kuwait.
- Lent credence to the claim that the United States and its allies are in the gulf not as conquerors but only as liberators, that our only quarrel is with the outlaw government of Iraq but not with the people of Iraq.
- Raised hopes that a post-war legacy of hatred for America in some parts of the Middle East can be kept to a minimum.
- Exploded the canard that the White House has been needlessly slow to pursue peace through diplomacy rather than on the battle field. A cease-fire as early as some critics demanded would have left Iraqi troops either inside Kuwait or within easy striking distance.
What happens next? That's largely up to Iraq, which basically has two choices:
Either Iraq can make good on its belated promise to abide by all United Nations resolutions on the Persian Gulf without condition or exception.
Or Iraq can resume its old game of trying to turn military defeat into political victory by attaching strings to concession after grudging concession and stalling for time in which to get ready for a new round of violent trouble-making.
If Iraq resumes the fighting or refuses to release war prisoners and hostages, the allies will be justified in mounting a full-scale attack not just on Iraq's elite troops but on Baghdad itself despite the long-range problems involved in such a step - which could alienate Arab members of the coalition like Egypt and Syria. And it could put the U.S.-led alliance in the position of occupying a large, complex country that has been difficult even for its own people to govern.
Despite the current halt to hostilities, the Persian Gulf is still a long way from real peace. Still ahead, among other hurdles, are such challenges as wringing war reparations from Iraq and possibly bringing war criminals to trial.
There's room for hoping that the Iraqis will send Saddam Hussein packing. But the ouster of Saddam won't be entirely constructive if his successor is just another brutal thug with or without Saddam's talent for haggling and his penchant for pretending that defeat is victory.
Meanwhile, a collective sigh of relief is clearly in order along with prayers of gratitude that the war in the Persian Gulf wasn't nearly as long and bloody as it could have been.