THE FIRST days of hostilities made clear that it was going to be a bad war for cliche's. A set of high-tech "smart" weapons often described as gold-plated clinkers worked astonishingly well in those early hours, hinting at giving the American-led coalition mastery of the skies and limiting -- although not, alas, eliminating -- Saddam Hussein's capacity to strike Israel and draw it into the conflict. A military that supposedly couldn't organize itself respectably against a competent foe was planning and executing an air war so masterfully that, in the first day anyway, Iraq's huge, well-armed and well-trained forces could neither anticipate the attack nor respond effectively to it.
It needed to be said at the outset -- and was, by the president and other American officials responsible for war policy -- that there could be no premature congratulation or overconfidence. The air war, powerful as its first blows have been, is itself far from over; an air defense could yet materialize, as could further terrible acts of aggression and terror against Israel, Saudi Arabia and American and allied troop concentrations. Casualties could mount. A surprise of some sort could be in store. And a much-feared anti-American backlash could be cranked up or appear spontaneously in the "street" of other Arab countries. The coalition could loosen. Terrorism remains a menace.
But as of this writing, at least, the strategy of the forces arrayed against Saddam Hussein appears to be well worth pursuing without distraction or deviation. The United States had asked Israel not to preempt, as is its historic tendency when it comes under threat. It had also asked Israel not to automatically respond against an attack if one came, and to respond, if at all, in moderation. In the first test case, casualties were low, and Israel paused, asserting a right to self-defense but conspicuously delaying the exercise of that right. The Americans and the allies were ready, and promptly and aggressively poured on extra raids against suspected Iraqi missile locations.
The Iraqi threat remains palpably real. The Pentagon acknowledges that some mobile missiles, though not those in fixed sites, may still be hidden, not to speak of the chemical war capability that Baghdad has already employed against Iraqi Kurds. If more proof of sheer viciousness were needed, Saddam Hussein supplied it by raising the fright of poison gas in Israel, sending missiles for no conceivable military purpose against its most populated region, and doing all this against a country that is a noncombatant in the war and that has scrupulously kept its distance from the coalition resisting his aggression. President Bush called the missile attacks an act of terrorism. Exactly so.
The largest strategic question, of course, is whether the air war will be or need be followed by a ground war. Recall Saddam Hussein's remark, at once contemptuous and insightful, to the American ambassador last July that Americans could not take 10,000 casualties in a single battle. He could never have expected to prevail in a high-tech air conflict with a superpower. He was bound to seek out a setting where readiness to absorb heavy casualties would be crucial to the outcome.
A campaign in which the United States committed ground units to liberate Kuwait from his formidable defenses could give Saddam precisely the circumstances in which he could hope to draw Washington into a costly struggle and then a negotiation in order to evade full compliance with U.N. resolutions and position himself as the match of the "great Satan." The point of the air strikes -- and their promise -- is either to fatally weaken the Iraqi capacity to conduct an effective ground campaign or preempt even the need for one. One cliche' -- that about the wisdom of trying to avoid a ground war in such an environment -- still holds good.