Theemergency U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Helsinki cements the operational partnership that George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev explored in Malta and Washington. Their talks in Finland are likely to make the difference between war and peace in the Persian Gulf.

Bush's trip to Helsinki is the act of a leader who has essentially decided to use military force to reverse Iraq's occupation of Kuwait if Saddam Hussein does not withdraw now. The face-to-face meeting Sunday will allow the president to convey that message to the Soviet leader and to reach a rough understanding on what comes next.

At the same time, the highly visible Soviet involvement in the Gulf crisis at the summit also jars a door for the Iraqis to get out of Kuwait. It offers Saddam the chance to give in not to the satanic Americans he has defied -- a politically fatal act for him -- but to the Soviets. Moscow's history of arming Iraq's army and championing Arab causes provides political cover for Saddam to argue that he has to respond to Soviet demands to avoid a conflagration that could endanger world peace.

The slim chance that the Soviets could pull off a "Tashkent solution," resembling their successful mediation of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, was put into play by the surprise trip of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to Moscow on Wednesday. But the odds still appear to be heavily against a diplomatic solution to the crisis, given Saddam's adamant refusal to withdraw.

President Bush's pessimistic public assessments of the chances for negotiations are based on administration intelligence estimates that only a shooting war will dislodge Iraq from Kuwait in the near future. The intelligence community also reportedly has concluded that the Soviets will quietly support an American strike against the occupation force once Bush has gone through the motions of letting others seek a diplomatic solution.

This crisis in fact offers Gorbachev a golden opportunity to prove that the Soviet Union has irrevocably abandoned its quest for advantage over the United States in the Third World. By meeting Bush even as the United States continues to tighten a military noose around Iraq, Gorbachev shows that the Kremlin puts more emphasis today on creating a benign international environment than on its once privileged relationship with its Arab clients.

"This crisis forces the Soviets to go to the logical conclusion of the wrenching reappraisal they had already started of their relations with the Arab states," maintains Francois Heisbourg, director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "The Soviets want good relations with the big boys, that is, with the United States, Western Europe and China, and they know that Iraq is not worth endangering those relations.

"They won't commit their own forces to a military operation," Heisbourg continues. "After all, the Soviets are in the middle of their own Vietnam syndrome. But Gorbachev is making clear where Soviet interests lie, and in this confrontation it is not with Iraq."

Heisbourg, a former senior official in the French Defense Ministry, echoes a sentiment voiced by other European analysts and officials when he says that France, Iraq's other major arms supplier, has made a similar reappraisal of its relations with Iraq and decided that breaking Saddam's occupation is vital to international stability.

This frees Bush's hand to pursue a Falklands-style campaign in which a month to six weeks of ineffective diplomatic activity gives the United States both the opportunity to amass the military force needed to crack the Iraqi occupation force and the moral position of having tried to talk Saddam out of Kuwait before forcing him out.

The Argentine junta that Margaret Thatcher toppled from power by winning the Falklands War was as rotten to the core as is Saddam Hussein's regime. The world will be a much safer place if George Bush pushes to achieve the same result in Iraq -- especially if Mikhail Gorbachev continues to give Bush's actions his blessing.

By going to the Helsinki summit, Bush completes a masterfully conducted overture and moves on to the main act.