In the days when the sun never set on the British empire and the paths of glory led east of Suez, you could always count on the English resolving -- or muddling through -- a crisis. Usually, a charge of grape and canister did the job, but their success also stemmed from more than stiff-upper-lip actions of storied Colonel Blimp characters. Occasionally they mixed sound advice with circumspect action.

"I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness, or your material resources as such," the great British biologist, Thomas Huxley, observed on his first trip to America in the 19th century. "Size is not grandeur, and territory does not make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs the terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things?"

Shakespeare, naturally, put it more elegantly: "It is excellent to have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant."

How the Iranian situation will end remains an unknown at this writing, but to this observer at least there seems no question that Jimmy Carter has handled a dreadful dilemma with admirable steadfastness and restraint.

He has been measured and firm, and has not permitted himself to be stamped by emotional cries to "do something" -- meaning doing something forcefully, showing the flag, demonstrating America's vaunted military might. This president, so far, gives evidence that he has learned the recent lessons about the use of force that others appear to have forgotten, conveniently or otherwise.

Four years ago great cheers and general acclaim greeted President Ford's actions in resolving the seizure of the U.S. merchant ship, Mayaguez, by Cambodian forces in the Gulf of Siam. Ford launched an air strike and dispatched the Marines in an assault on Tang Island. The White House was jubilant when this saber-rattling resulted in the freeing of 40 crew members. That 41 Americans died in that operation was widely overlooked, and evidence later indicated the Cambodians were on the verge of releasing their captives before a shot was fired.

Other presidentys have found that the realities of exercising power prudently and effectively often differ markedly from their campaign promises. When the USS Pueblo and its crew of 83 was hijacked in the high seas by North Korean forces at the beginning of the fateful presidential election year of 1968, candidate Richard M. Nixon railed against the dangers of America becoming a pitiful, helpless giant and pledged not to tolerate such actions if elected.

But when the same North Koreans shot down an unarmed American reconnaissance plane, killing all 31 aboard, while on patrol 100 miles from the Korean mainland less than three months after Nixon's first inauguration, the president took no military response. (The Pueblo crew, after nearly a year-long ordeal in captivity, finally had been released several weeks before Nixon took office.)

For Jimmy Carter, in the present delicate and far more dangerous episode involving Iran, the way he has chosen to exercise force is not the issue. The debate that surely will follow the ending of this ordeal will revolve around how we got ourselves in this mess in the first place and what lessons we draw from it.

When Carter raised his glass New Year's Eve in Tehran almost two years ago to toast the shah as representing "an island of stability in an unstable world," he was doing more than paying lip service to "our guy" in Iran. He was helping to build the box that later entrapped him. In standing strongly beside the shah then and in the many months that followed, he was rendering a public judgment -- wishfully as it turned out -- on that monarch's strength, character, security, survivability and on what he represented historically and politically in the Middle East.

It's true that for a generation American presidents and policymakers made the shah a centerpiece in their Middle East plans. But there was always a choice of either strenghthening that relationship or of trying to fashion a new one. Carter chose to stand resolutely by the shah instead of attempting to separate or isolate himself from him as the nature of his regime and the historical forces rising against it became apparent.

Two other presidential decisions had a direct bearing on the predicament in which we find ourselves. The first was not to admire the shah, our erstwhile valued and praised ally, to refuge in America after he had been deposed. As Henry Kissinger remarked publicly, such a longtime friend of the United States should not be treated as "a flying Dutchman who cannot find a port of call."

But the second decision in some ways was more inexplicable. Having made that earlier judgement against letting the shah in, word in late October that he was ill in Mexico brought a swift reversal at a time when U.S.-Iranian relations were even more volatile.

What hasn't been satisfactorily explained are two major questions: Why the shah couldn't have received adequate medical medical treatment elsewhere, and why we were surprised that he suffered from cancer at all. Of all the remaining mysteries about this incident, that last one is the most confounding. Now, we're told, the shah had been suffering from lymph gland cancer for six years. He had been treated by French doctors, but we never knew anything about it.

None of this mitigates the outrages committed by the Ranians or means we should accede in any way to their unacceptable demands. But it helps explain why we find ourselves in a box fashioned by many hands over many years. Praise the president for recognizing the wisdom expressed long ago by the doughty British Prime Minister David Lloyd George: "There is no greater fatuity than a political judgment dressed in a military uniform." But remember that his own political judgment has contributed to the dilemma.