ARE THE URGENCIES of the moment prevailing over the fundamental objections to any large war against Iraq? President Bush's decision last week to dramatically increase the size of the force deployed in Arabia may be intended only to intimidate Saddam Hussein. But it is also no doubt driven by narrowly military considerations -- when presidents send armies overseas to manipulate others, they are themselves manipulated by such tactical factors as the superiority of mechanized forces over plain infantry in desert conditions. Whatever the mix of motives, the mere movement of such forces creates its own momentum toward a large land war. Events, increasingly, are in the saddle.

Secretary of State James Baker discovered that when he went to deliver a pep talk -- and found the troops marooned in the sands of Arabia increasingly impatient. To be sure, the senior officers now running war commands in the full glare of publicity have no reason to be impatient -- they call for ever more troops, not for immediate action. But they cannot subdue the restlessness of the men and women who were airlifted in a great hurry last August only to face the utter boredom of Saudi Arabia, where all comforts and diversions -- often very elaborate -- are strictly reserved for the elite.

The troops in Arabia have no formal say in the policies that determine their fate. But their mounting desire to "get it over with" -- that classic pre-war emotion so routinely regretted in the aftermath -- is now flowing back into Washington all the same, sometimes in subtle ways. Intelligence estimates, for example, duly record the sobering facts that should discourage any ground combat, but they have also began to include contemptuous estimates of the quality of Iraqi troops.

What ought to dominate intelligence assessments are strong warnings to avoid a land war with Iraq:

A land war would almost certainly result in high U.S. casualties.

A war will do nothing to assure lasting stability in the region -- only basic political changes that we are not advocating could bring stability.

Hence the United States must not let itself be drawn into a ground war under any circumstance. If Iraq provokes combat, America should, insofar as possible, limit its response to the air bombardment of Iraq's military infrastructure.

In support of the pro-war argument, we are told that many Iraqi soldiers are not experienced veterans of the Iran war, but mere conscripts, poorly trained and more inclined to desert than to fight. That is a reading of mixed information that suggests the unconscious workings of impatience. No doubt there are a great many veterans in the Iraqi army -- certainly many more than in the U.S. forces.

Much less subtle is the pressure for "rotation." In Korea, one-year unaccompanied tours have long been routine, but units sent to Saudi Arabia last August are already being replaced. True, U.S. Army and Marine forces airlifted in early August cannot stay there much longer without losing their combat edge. Yet rotation in itself creates a short-term incentive to start the fighting sooner rather than later -- an incentive at work at the highest levels of command and not merely among the troops.

During the next few weeks, the initial contingent of airborne, infantry, Marine and mechanized forces will still be in place along with all subsequent reinforcements, but their replacement units will also be arriving. Obviously, it is tempting to fight during the rotation overlap, when the number of troops in Arabia will temporarily be much greater than before or after.

Diplomatic considerations by contrast did not favor war until quite recently. But the coalition-building under way since August has now reached its culminating point of success, and may soon begin its decline. With all possible allies -- from Argentina to Bangladesh -- already recruited, only defections are likely from now on. In the meantime, at the United Nations, the slow train of Security Council resolutions has passed through the way-stations of the initial condemnation, the trade embargo, the prohibition of flights to and from Iraq, the demand for reparations and, most recently, the near-ultimatum on resupplying the Kuwait embassies under siege.

While the train has yet to reach the final station of a collective declaration of war under the provisions of the U.N. Charter, the resolutions already approved are quite enough to endow military action against Iraq with more than an undertone of international legality. Above all, an indefinite prolongation of the crisis entails the risk that U.S. hesitation will induce key allies -- and also perhaps Saudi Arabia -- to come to terms with Saddam Hussein. After all, if he survives, his neighbors might as well conciliate him while he is in need of friends.

Finally, there are the domestic politics of the decision. On the face of it, they are unfavorable to war but consider the president's position. It was his own very personal decision to defend Saudi Arabia in place, rather than deter Iraq from afar, that has placed almost a quarter-million servicemen in the Gulf and will shortly add more. Had he opted for deterrence by air and naval power alone -- the practice of the United States in so many previous crises -- he would not now be entrapped in the sands of Arabia along with our troops.

Perhaps it was his close personal ties to leading Saudi figures that motivated the decision, or perhaps the president simply did not consider all the disadvantages of defense as opposed to deterrence -- not surprising given the fact that he made the decision very quickly, without serious consultations.

In any case George Bush cannot now withdraw our forces unless and until Saddam Hussein capitulates. That the economic sanctions will bring about Saddam's downfall in less than a year or even two, now seems most unlikely. Yet so many troops cannot possibly be kept in Arabia for that long. Bush -- unable to retreat without a causing a collapse in U.S. prestige -- has thus maneuvered himself into a trap from which he can escape rapidly only by war.

The Futility of Victory

When Americans fought Germany and Japan half a century ago, the notion that all cultures are equivalent, that even the most loathsome customs and most anti-democratic institutions must be respected, did not yet inhibit American action. Thus Germany was not only defeated but also de-Nazified, Japan's emperor was de-sanctified in a massive intrusion on the official religion, all aspects of their cultures that Americans deemed warlike were condemned, and laws safeguarding individual freedoms were flatly imposed -- giving the vote to Japan's women, among many other things. As it happened, the experiment worked and Germany and Japan are now so profoundly "debellicized" that any aggression by either of them is unthinkable.

Today by contrast there is no intention whatever to remove the fundamental political and cultural causes of the chronic turmoil of the entire "violent zone" from Morocco to Bangladesh, of which the Persian Gulf is only the richest part, and in which Saddam Hussein's aggression is only the latest of many outrages.

Instead of denouncing the lawless dictatorships and absolute monarchies that rule the entire region (excepting India and Israel), the Bush administration more than any of its predecessors is ready to court them, lavishly arm them with our latest weapons and protect them with the bodies of our troops -- so long as they oppose Iraq. Not a word about democracy is whispered by our diplomats or visiting officials as they consort with the unelected potentates that are now our transient allies (the Kuwait of the Al Sabahs, it should be recalled, voted against the United States at the U.N. more often than Brezhnev's Soviet Union, while Syria's dictator, Hafez Assad, masterminded some of the worst terrorist attacks against Americans).

Indeed if any of our diplomats did advocate democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, for example, he would promptly be dismissed for manifesting an outlandish provincialism. It is not irrelevant that the president seems quite comfortable with unelected rulers, counting both the murderous elders of Bejing and the autocratic ruler of Saudi Arabia among his friends. Obviously unconscious of the implied abandonment of values that any such intimacy entails, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney has actually declared that the key to U.S.-Saudi cooperation was the "intimate friendship" between King Fahd and George Bush.

Similarly, instead of proclaiming our own belief in the inalienable freedoms of all men and women, U.S. military orders now demand the utmost deference towards the literally totalitarian religious practices current in the region. Thus Americans -- including evangelical Christians -- are now defending countries where conversion to Christianity is a crime for which the mandatory penalty is death, where no public church or any other non-Moslim place of worship is allowed even though hundreds of thousands of non-Moslems live there and where even the tiny cross on the lapel of our military chaplains is demmed too offensive to be displayed.

Ironically, it is only by crossing the border into Moslem but far more tolerant Iraq that our troops could find Christian churches functioning overtly. Likewise, American servicewomen are now defending countries where religion is invoked to deny the most elementary rights to women, including the right to keep their children, or even visit them, once they are dismissed by their husbands (Kuwait's exiled ruler has reportedly gone through some 40 wives so far).

Regardless of how one views cultural relativism, what all this means in practical strategic terms is that even a total victory over Iraq will not ensure any lasting tranquility in the Persian Gulf. At most, one dictator among many will have been removed from the scene. Even now, the abrupt expulsion of hundreds of thousands of long-resident Yemenis from Saudi Arabia is setting the stage for a new war.

The United States is itself stoking the fires of future turmoil. In the name of strengthening the anti-Iraqi coalition, yet more weapons are being sent into a region already grossly over-armed. As for Syria's Assad, he has already been enboldened enough by U.S. support to extend his forcible control of Lebanon amidst fresh massacres, and he too will no doubt receive American weapons in due course.

If War Comes . . . .

The results of any victory in a war against Iraq would be ephemeral. The only permanent result of any victory against Iraq would be the killing and maiming of our troops -- not any lasting respite from the region's chronic instability. Yet the price for temporary relief would be high; both war plans widely discussed in the press entail high casualties. {See related story above.}

But if it becomes impossible to avoid war -- notably because of some outright Iraqi attack -- it is still imperative to avoid any significant ground offensive. That leaves only air power, given that surface naval strength is irrelevant against landlocked Iraq.

True, airpower has promised much more than it has ever delivered. Certainly it achieved little against elusive guerrillas in the jungles of Vietnam, and it was not very effective even against the industrial sprawls of Germany during World War II -- doll factories and weapon factories were hard to tell apart from the cloudy and well-defended German skies. Iraq by contrast is not strong in air defense, and its skies are mostly crystal clear.

Above all, the targets of bombardment would not be industrial areas where any damage could be inconclusive, and still less cities and towns where innocent Iraqis would be killed to achieve no valid purpose. Instead, an air offensive could be concentrated against the well-marked compounds that contain Iraqi ammunition-filling plants, weapon assembly lines and military storage depots, as well as the laboratories and plants where missiles, chemical weapons, biological agents and nuclear weapons are being developed or produced.

A few days of intense air attacks -- not a "surgical strike" but rather a campaign of some thousands of sorties to bomb, photograph and bomb again -- could realistically be expected to deprive Saddam Hussein of his very dangerous military-industrial infrastructure, the key to his ability to wage war without a superpower supplier. Moreover, just as any such air offensive would have to be preceded by the suppression of Iraqi air defenses, it could be followed by the systematic attack on all transports headed for Kuwait, to eventually starve out and force the retreat of the occupying Iraqi troops.

Airpower offers no costless panacea. An air campaign too would cost U.S. lives, though by the dozen rather than by the thousand as in the case of a ground war. Nor can an air campaign alone assure the downfall of Saddam Hussein, or the destruction of any sizeable part of the Iraqi army. To do that, not thousands but tens of thousands of air sorties would be needed, dramatically increasing the casualty toll for the United States, as well as for the Iraqis. Actually even if the entire Iraqi army could magically be destroyed, it would be a major strategic error to do so, for that could merely accelerate the advent of the next confrontation in the region. With Iraq eliminated as a military power, neither Syria nor Iran would any longer be restrained on that score, and both are powers that need to be restrained at all times.

Moreover, even a perfect air campaign can only be an interim solution to the underlying problem of Iraqi military power and missile and nuclear proliferation that rightly agitates many observers around the world. If laxity, greed and corruption continue to allow the flow of dangerous technologies and heavy weapons to Iraq as to other countries of the "violent zone," it will not help much to have destroyed Iraq's military industries.

If by contrast, a truly strict and broadly comprehensive prohibition of all exports, of all weapons and all military-related technologies is finally imposed on the entire violent zone (giving up the billions of dollars of U.S. weapons exports now planned), it will not matter much if Iraq's current military-industrial facilities are left in place. At a time when thousands of Americans face the prospect of death and injury in a distant land, it is our obligation to seriously consider that better alternative to war.

Edward Luttwak holds the Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His book, "Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace," is published by Harvard University Press.