ALL WARS are ultimately about politics. If that maxim holds true in the Persian Gulf, this can still be a quick conflict. It can move rapidly to the best balancing of objectives sought by the two protagonists, George Bush and Saddam Hussein. In fact, by shifting current war aims and the means of pursuing them, either man could hasten the war's conclusion.

That this is so can be seen by reviewing what each side actually wished to accomplish. What Bush wants is supposedly dictated by a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions, culminating in that of Nov. 29, which authorized the use of "all means necessary" to achieve one central objective: to get Iraq out of Kuwait. That point -- to reverse Iraq's six-month-old invasion of Kuwait -- was pinned down in the extraordinary joint statement released last week by Secretary of State James A. Baker III and the new Soviet foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnykh.

That this was America's central goal is, of course, nonsense. Since the beginning of the war on Jan. 16, liberating Kuwait has been only one of America's war aims, and not top of the list. In retrospect, it is clear that this was also true before the war. If George Bush only wanted to get Iraq out of Kuwait, he did little to help bring it about. Saddam and his generals, administration officials mused, might face war-crimes trials; there could be no talk of "saving face;" and the Iraqi dictator's defeat had to be visible to all. Thus Baker and the Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, squared off across the conference table in Geneva, and then retold their encounter on television, in set-piece theater that had nothing to do with a search for peace. By its nature, diplomacy connotes compromise, but none was visible on either side.

In fact, Bush made his true priorities clear in both word and deed as the war began. In his speech to the nation, he placed restoring Kuwait's freedom behind other objectives. "We are determined to knock out Saddam Hussein's nuclear bomb potential. We will also destroy his chemical weapons facilities. Much of Saddam's artillery and tanks will be destroyed."

The U.S. battle plan followed the president's script. In the first wave of attacks, many U.S. missiles and fighter-bombers were directed at chemical, biological and nuclear factories, even though destruction of these was not instrumental to the battle. These sorties were a diversion from immediate military purpose and could have been left until later, save for one risk: that Saddam would immediately agree to leave Kuwait before this important business was done.

Few Americans, whether or not they supported the "war option," would cavil at this ordering of priorities. It has, indeed, been important business, and the difficult work of rebuilding the Middle East will now be far easier without the lingering specter of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

As debate continues about the proper moment for joining the ground battle, if at all, one point tends to be overlooked. The thousands of sorties flown against Iraqi targets may not resolve the issue whether airpower alone can compel Saddam to leave Kuwait, but they have progressively crippled Iraq's capacity to make war in the future. So far, U.S. military action is in large part a simple -- and more immediately effective -- extension of sanctions, pursued by other means.

Eighteen days into war, Iraqi tank divisions are still largely intact, the Republican Guards are far from decimated and a significant number of aircraft have been parked out of harm's way in Iran. But Iraq's capacity to continue being a serious military power has already been heavily degraded. This will be all the more true if the United States and like-minded states maintain an embargo on the myriad items that Iraq must import to pose a significant military threat in the future, even if many tanks and artillery pieces emerge unscathed from the sands of Kuwait.

With each day that the air campaign progresses, the closer the United States comes to its goal of defanging Iraq for the long-term, and the less it needs to inhibit either outside diplomacy or any inclination Saddam might have to think again about the value of keeping Kuwait.

To encourage him to reassess his position, the United States will need to consider the wisdom of extending its war aims to include ridding the world of Saddam and his regime. The Iraqi dictator richly deserves to end his days like Benito Mussolini, hanging by his heels. Yet at what cost? For the United States to accept less than this outcome -- indeed, to accept even an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait that is not just a unilateral, unnegotiated act -- has been made more difficult by presidential rhetoric. After the war, trying Iraqi leaders might be appropriate, and perhaps existing conventions on conduct in war can be expanded as part of Bush's vision of a new world order. Today, however, talk of war-crimes trials poses two problems. It can stiffen Iraqi resistance, just as the 1944 proposal by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau to "pastoralize" Germany after the war was seized upon by Nazi propagandists (45 years later, East German Communists were still exploiting this proposal). And it would now be difficult for President Bush to accept any compromise with the man he called "worse than Hitler" that would leave him in power, however diminished in military or political stature.

U.S. psychological warfare has also created some moral ambiguities. On Friday, Vice President Dan Quayle said that he expected Saddam to use chemical weapons against American troops, and that the United States did not rule out the use of nuclear weapons.

Given the Iraqi leader's record of gassing Iranians and his own Kurdish population, a dose of deterrence may be useful. But Quayle erred in at least two respects, in addition to risking U.S. control of the moral high ground. The nuclear threat could not be carried out, without eroding a taboo that grew out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and helped produce the miracle that the world survived the Cold War without a nuclear catastrophe. Preserving that inhibition is far more important than anything involved in the current conflict.

In any case, in opposing Iraq, nuclear weapons could do little if anything that is unique, save to be used as city-busting weapons, which is the last thing the United States wants. In fact, three years ago a Pentagon panel predicted that highly accurate weapons "will enable us to use conventional weapons for many of the missions once assigned to nuclear weapons" -- including taking out all but the most hardened targets. This prediction has been fulfilled during the last three weeks.

The frustration that the vice president reflects is understandable, however. Despite the overwhelming superiority of U.S. military power and the certainty that it will prevail, Saddam has shown no inclination to abandon Kuwait. He might change his mind, however, if he believes he has something to gain. This has been the puzzle for several months: Assuming that Saddam is neither stupid nor bent upon martyrdom, what does he hope to achieve?

Perhaps President Bush sees Saddam as Cato the Censor saw Carthage: "I shall never cease to entertain fears about her till I hear of her having been leveled with the ground." But if Bush can accept something short of unconditional surrender, or is pressed to do so by other coalition members, it becomes critical to understand Saddam's motives and what will affect them.

So far in the war, he has pursued a three-part strategy. By attacking Israel with conventionally-armed Scud missiles -- a weapon capable of terror but little military effect -- he tries to draw a response and crack the coalition. He seeks to foment popular opposition to regimes throughout the Arab world in part by exploiting the same instruments -- attacks on Tel Aviv and Riyadh, showing U.S. POWs on television -- that cause so much revulsion here. And through military skirmishing and mischief-making, such as pouring oil into the Persian Gulf, he works at provoking the United States into a deadly embrace on the ground, in an effort to destroy U.S. popular resolve. Saddam may also be preserving his option for a radically different course. Putting aircraft in a safe haven is militarily sound because U.S. firepower has already rendered them useless and Iran might thereby be dragged unwittingly into the war. But it also creates an asset for later bargaining.

There are other clues to his possible intent -- both what Saddam has done and what he has not done. Thus he has not used chemical weapons nor engaged in major acts of terrorism against Americans, although both are within his reach. Perhaps Scuds cannot carry deadly chemicals, but artillery shells on the Saudi border surely can. And in years past Saddam has had in his stable terrorists who have killed Americans.

He may yet use these infernal tools of warfare -- as Iraq threatened to do again yesterday. But their absence so far suggests another motive: to leave open a door for compromise. Anyone who knows the United States must realize that either act would slam shut that door and set the American people on an implacable course of revenge.

And what has Saddam achieved? He is the first Arab leader (not acting as a surreptitious terrorist) to bring war to the cities on Israel's coastal plain since 1948; he is the first to bloody Saudi Arabia, the symbol of the Arab "haves"; he is the first to kill American soldiers in open battle. At Khafji, he has attacked and held territory (however briefly) in the face of the infidel.

Seventeen years ago another Arab leader, Egypt's Anwar Sadat, used war and modest success as a cover for a decisive change of policy. By briefly winning on the battlefield against Israel, although he was rescued from eventual defeat only by outside diplomacy, Sadat believed he had gained enough: "I wanted my victory to be maintained because I regarded it as the avenue to the just peace for which I had worked unceasingly."

Saddam, of course, is no Sadat. He is certainly not driven by a larger vision of what most people would recognize as a just peace. He would not earn the plaudits of a Henry Kissinger, who saw in Sadat's stratagem "that we were dealing with a statesman of the first order."

But as his country reels under the pummeling of thousands of sorties a day, and as he asserts (erroneously) that he has "met the best that the coalition has to offer," Saddam's pretense could evolve into a basis for shortening the war. George Bush is right that Iraq will leave Kuwait. But as when the endgame begins, the president knows that he, too, has a stake in an outcome short of Iraq's destruction, with the added difficulties of trying to forge a stable Middle East from the ashes of a costly war. If Saddam will see that in his tiny "victories" he has saved enough face, he can spare himself and Iraq the terrible alternative.

Robert Hunter is vice president for regional programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 1979 to 1981, he was director of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council.