It is wonderful that Saddam Hussein released his foreign hostages. But it is also important not to be overwhelmed with gratitude, nor to imagine that with their release the Iraqi leader has made a major concession that the United States should now match with a concession of its own.

In advance of anticipated meetings with U.S. leaders, Saddam undoubtedly intended the hostage release to communicate that he is not wholly evil, that he is a man with whom we can do business, that he is ready to deal.

Some observers fear the possible meetings of President Bush with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Secretary of State James Baker with Saddam will set in motion a negotiation ending in some sort of compromise in which Saddam gets an oil field or an island or two. Why else would Baker travel to Baghdad and Tariq Aziz to Washington, insistent voices ask, if not to begin a negotiation by another name?

Bush is fluent in the oblique language of diplomacy, and it is possible that in the desire to avoid war and achieve some of his goals he will be sucked into a process of mutual concessions. But it is more likely that the proposed talks are intended -- as Bush has said they are -- as a last effort to communicate the U.S. government's seriousness of purpose to a ruler who has little feel for Americans, little experience with the world beyond the Middle East and a habit of underestimating his opponents.

Two strong speeches delivered last week explain again why it is important that the United States and the associated coalition remain firm and clear in the Gulf.

In one, that eminently clear-headed former president, Richard Nixon, explained again why the United States is and should be there. First, because "Saddam Hussein has unlimited ambitions to dominate one of the most important strategic areas in the world. Because he has oil, he has the means to acquire the weapons he needs for aggression against his neighbors, including ... at some future time, a nuclear arsenal."

Second, because if in this first post-Cold War crisis Saddam profits from his aggression, "there are other potential aggressors in the world who will be tempted to wage war against their neighbors. If we fail to roll back his aggression -- peacefully if possible, by force if necessary -- no potential aggressor in the future will be deterred by warnings from the United States or by U.N. resolutions," Nixon said.

Vice President Dan Quayle addressed the same themes in a speech at Seton Hall University, also emphasizing Saddam's ardent desire to be "leader of a new Arab superpower."

"To that end, he spent some $50 billion on arms imports during the '80s alone. He has launched two wars of aggression during this period ... at a cost of some 1 million lives thus far. He has built the sixth largest military force in the world. He has acquired a sizable stockpile of both chemical and biological weapons ... and he has launched a massive program to acquire nuclear weapons."

Both these speeches are persuasive. Today Saddam Hussein is the leader of a middle-size power in the Middle East. If permitted to succeed in Kuwait, this violent man of boundless ambition and large arsenals of unconventional weapons will be in a position to destabilize moderate Arab regimes, establish hegemony in the Gulf and emerge as a world power.

An effort is afoot to spread the impression that Israel would be the principal beneficiary of military action against Saddam Hussein. But that is nonsense. Kuwait itself, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt are the states most threatened by Saddam's weapons. Of all the states in the region, Israel is best able to deter an attack.

At the same time, another effort is under way in the United Nations in which Arab states are seeking to use the Gulf crisis to extract U.S. support for an "international peace conference" on the Arab-Israeli problem. The outcome of this effort will be clear in a long-pending vote on a resolution -- a vote which last week was once again postponed, but which may occur this week.

Some voices are urging that the United States should strike a deal that will permit Saddam to "save face." That is exactly what we should not do. It should not be possible to invade, occupy and devastate a neighboring country without "losing face."

Having trashed Kuwait, disrupted the region, cost the United States more than $30 billion and other members of the coalition perhaps $30 billion more, Saddam should not be permitted merely to walk away without penalty. That would be destabilizing to the region and to the world.

At the very least, he should fully and unconditionally withdraw from Kuwait and compensate his victims and their allies for the economic costs of his violence. He cannot undo the human misery and death, but justice, common sense and U.N. Security Council Resolution 674 call for financial compensation.

Finally, Americans should face the fact that this man and his regime can't be trusted with weapons of mass destruction. Iraq's partisans make the curious argument that the possession of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons "balances" the power of Israel and "stabilizes" the region. This is like saying guns in the hands of a mass murderer "balance" guns in the hands of the police.

Saddam Hussein has a record of aggression. Israel has a record of being the object of aggression. The difference between aggression and self-defense is basic to both law and morality.

Bush has committed American power and reputation to turning back Saddam's brutal power drive. This undertaking has already disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of American service families and cost the U.S. billions that could have been applied to reducing the deficit. It has involved us in some unsavory -- but perhaps necessary -- alliances and deals. Now it simply must succeed.