Frayed by a summer's worth of TV hearings, an enervated America turns its attention now to the question of mine sweepers and why a 600-ship, $100 billion Navy has to beg and borrow them. But the main point of the reflagging debacle is being missed. U.S. policy in the Gulf may already have failed. Not because a mine blew a hole in a tanker. That can happen to the best of navies. But because, notwithstanding grossly hyped Iranian naval maneuvers, a cease-fire may have broken out over the Gulf.

What is wrong with that? The reasoning is not as tortured as it seems. The United States did not go into the Gulf to defend the principle of "free navigation." That is a fool's mission. The Gulf, the world and the oil trade lived quite nicely for three years with the unfree navigation brought on by the Persian Gulf tanker war. Moreover, the United States is not defending the free navigation of Iranian or even Saudi or Japanese shipping. It is defending the shipping of Kuwait, Iraq's closest ally.

If the reflagging plan has a purpose, it is to help shore up Iraq, the weaker side of the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq, losing the land war, began attacks at sea as a way of strangling Iran economically. Iran responded in kind, targeting in particular the ships of Kuwait, Iraq's ally and supplier. The United States stepped in to defend Kuwait and thus tilt toward Iraq.

Then something odd happened. Missed amid the sounds of exploding mines, chanting mobs and Iranian patrol boats laden with aspiring martyrs is the sudden silence of the Iraqi air force. Since the arrival of the U.S. Navy bearing armor, order and flag, Iraq -- not Iran -- has quite suddenly ceased fire in the Gulf.

Now, this is exactly the opposite of what the reflagging plan was intended to achieve. The Iraqis had hoped that, behind American protection, they could exploit their one area of military superiority by pressing the naval war against Iran. Instead, they have had to suspend their attacks.

Why? Because the United States has made it clear to the Iraqis that it wants them to cease fire. Why did we ask Iraq to cool it? Because, says Robert Oakley, the National Security Council's director of Near East and South Asian affairs, if Iraq stands down in the Gulf for a period, that will "make clear where the trouble is coming from." Clear to Congress, especially, which is not too pleased about the tilt toward Iraq and which takes the view -- correct but irrelevant -- that Iraq is the more guilty party. (It may be more guilty but it is also weaker, and its defeat by Iran would be a catastrophe for the West.)

That is the official reason we have asked Iraq to cool it. The other, unspoken reason is so as not to provoke Iranian naval retaliation. The administration fears that if it cannot ensure the safety of American ships, it will incur political disaster at home. It does not want its ships in the middle of a cross fire.

But for at least three years before the reflagging the U.S. Navy went about protecting American ships while both sides exchanged fire in the Gulf. Moreover, if we are pressuring Iraq to stand down, our reflagging policy is entirely self-defeating. The only sensible purpose of reflagging is to tilt toward Iraq. A cease-fire at sea is wholly in Iran's interest: Iran wants to fight and win on land.

Which is why Iraq won't stand down for long. Iraq has therefore told the United States that it will resume naval attacks unless progress is made toward a comprehensive -- land and sea -- cease-fire. The United States has dutifully assured the Iraqis that it is working diligently for a comprehensive cease-fire. Which explains Secretary of State Shultz's ostentatious and otherwise incomprehensible trip to the United Nations to cast personally the American vote for a cease-fire resolution.

The newspapers played this on page one ("U.N. Vote Seen a Key In Gulf"), but the vote was just for show -- for the United States to show Iraq its sincerity about trying to end the war. The sincerity is there. But the means are not. There have been several such resolutions passed over the past seven years, and Iran has dismissed them all. Iran dismissed this latest one before it was even voted. There is not the slightest prospect of a comprehensive cease-fire. The ayatollah wants victory.

Which means that the administration is in a bind with time running out. A comprehensive cease-fire is something that the United States cannot deliver. As soon as we have to admit that, Iraq resumes firing in the Gulf.

Then what? One hopes that this is a contingency for which the administration and the military have prepared. Their handling of mines, however, does not inspire confidence in their contingency planning. If they are not prepared, both militarily and politically, then we are in for a very bad time.

And if the administration wants not to prepare -- if it wants Iraq to continue indefinitely the cease-fire at sea so as not to endanger the American fleet -- then we would be better off not to be in the Gulf in the first place. Iraq would be better off, since it would then be free to carry on the naval war. And the United States would be better off too. After all, if safety is the goal, there are better places to go looking for it than the Persian Gulf.