They said Bill Clinton was wrong to rely on air power alone to win the war, and -- assuming the details are mastered -- they were wrong. The damage that NATO air did to the Serbs' military assets, to the economic infrastructure and finally to the popular will turned out to be more than even Slobodan Milosevic could bear. Clinton had been criticized by me and others to the effect that he was a cruise-missile president who would not commit the resources to match the ample dimensions of his war aims. This time around, anyway, he showed he was right. His weighing of means and ends finally clicked.

You can argue fairly that an earlier and more evident move toward the preparing of a ground campaign would have brought a swifter victory and at less cost to the losers. British defense expert John Keegan, writing in the most recent Sunday Telegraph of London, made the case that the differences between Vietnam and Kosovo would make an invasion of Kosovo a cakewalk.

The differences were most acute on the home front, he wrote: Milosevic has enjoyed none of the strengths imparted to Ho Chi Minh by fellow Marxists, anti-Americans and deluded idealists. He has no following outside his own country and is opposed by an important minority inside it. He's an indicted war criminal. "All the differences disfavor Milosevic and his post-Communist regime, a thing of the bad old past, and favor NATO, an alliance that represents the future at its most hopeful."

But against the charge that he was slow to go to ground war, Clinton has available the defense that he gave first priority to the human costs to NATO's own forces. Here the record will show the amazing fact that while the estimated total of Serbian soldiers killed in the 10-week war was 5,000 (plus 10,000 wounded), the actual NATO count of deaths due to combat, not accident, was zero. Zero. 5,000 to 0. Ground combat would surely have taken American lives. Here Clinton was lucky but deliberate as well. It was not just that he avoided ground combat. His chosen tactics in the air war punished the adversary and saved NATO lives.

The waging of war by high-tech machines and restrictive tactics is the special lesson of this war. It turned out that the principal shortage that became apparent was of viable military and economic targets. Serbia being a tough but small middle-level country, the number of these began to run short. The gap was made up by verging into targets that could be hit only by putting civilians at extra risk. Still, the end of the war came before the NATO publics revolted against the collateral civilian kill.

Milosevic kept a close eye on the cohesion of NATO, ultimately to the alliance's advantage. The question in his mind was not just whether Serbia could stand the incurring of casualties but whether the alliance could stand their inflicting. Many in the West worried that Milosevic would be right in expecting the alliance to fragment. But this didn't happen.

Clinton, with a steady emphasis on the humanitarian purposes, the bearable costs and the allies' good company, kept the country reasonably united behind his policy and also kept the alliance whole. This demonstrated a level of leadership in foreign policy that his previous performance had not anticipated. Not a flawless performance this time but in the end an effective one.

In Europe the United States now looms larger than it has since the end of World War II. We Americans went in and once again pulled the Europeans' chestnuts out of the fire. Clinton did it with a relatively light hand, however. Among the 19 allies, there were no defections in 70 difficult days. The Brits relived days of glory. The French played the unfamiliar role of loyal ally. The Germans stepped forward. The Italians did well. If we are not indispensable -- a troublesome word that deserves retirement -- we can be good to have around. The rebuilding of the Balkans should resume in a spirit of good feeling.

We have been given a reprieve in relations with Russia. The Russians complained mightily about American overbearing in their backyard. But they found more determination in the American attitude than many people had expected, and eventually chose cooperation in parallel with the United States. The possibility exists to reverse the decline of American-Russian relations. The way this war is ending -- assuming, again, the details -- bodes well for the great American-supported project of the integration of a democratic Europe.