If a country doesn't know how to accept victory in a war, it's poorly placed to win the peace. And winning the peace can be even more important than winning the war.

The short but brutal war for Kosovo came to a messy close. Slobodan Milosevic remains in power, and he dragged out negotiations in a quest for loopholes he can exploit later. But in the end, he capitulated on the fundamentals. Serbian troops are withdrawing so Kosovars can return home, and they will be protected by a predominantly Western force.

Americans were divided on the war, largely though not entirely along partisan lines. Many will refuse to concede that President Clinton reached his objectives, and did so in the face of much skepticism about whether an air war would achieve them. The debate on the war, says Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), "has not been much deeper than pure anti-Clinton animosity."

"The critics who said it would never work have been confounded," says Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), "and in that sense, Clinton was vindicated."

Yet even supporters of the war have doubts over how it was carried out. "I wish we had done some of the more severe airstrikes earlier," says Price, "and I think it was a mistake to rule out the use of ground forces."

Indeed, the threat of ground forces last week may have pushed Milosevic to seek a settlement. And the gradual escalation of the war permitted Milosevic to do his dirty work of ridding Kosovo of hundreds of thousands of its citizens.

There is also this: The use of airpower to prevent NATO casualties suggested how little public support most NATO leaders believed the war could sustain.

Yes, NATO needed to show Serbs they would pay a price for Milosevic's carnage. And a war at 15,000 feet reduced the chances that the NATO coalition would break up and that domestic opposition would grow. Still, even those who thought this war was just have to be uneasy with a strategy that threw almost all the risks onto Kosovar refugees and, to some extent, Serbian civilians.

The way this war was fought reduces the likelihood it will mark the beginning of a broad effort by the democracies to enforce human rights and decent standards of conduct on dictators around the world. The democracies might be willing to use air power for such an objective, but as Price says, "this exercise shows the potentials but also the limitations of air power."

The idea of a new democratic crusade was evangelized with great passion by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as stalwart as any NATO leader in supporting the war. Writing in this week's Newsweek, Blair proclaimed "a new millennium where dictators know that they cannot get away with ethnic cleansing or repress their peoples with impunity."

Blair argues the dictators "will now know that when we say we will act, we are serious." Perhaps. But it's not clear we will be terribly eager even to say we will act the next time. And fighting a war for humanitarian objectives will be even harder outside Europe.

Yet Pomeroy is right to insist that "NATO has just won its first offensive engagement" and did so on behalf of a worthy objective. The key is what happens next.

Obviously, Milosevic must be held to the terms of the original deal, strictly construed. The United States and its allies will not be able to declare victory until the overwhelming majority of the refugees return home.

That will mean providing both soldiers and humanitarian aid. It would be profoundly irresponsible not to commit the resources necessary to achieve the result for which all the bombs fell. The effort by some Republicans in the House yesterday to cut funding for Kosovo operations after Sept. 30 threatened, as Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said, to "pull defeat from victory."

The United States also needs to repair the damage the war caused our relations with Russia. There is now a deep split in the Russian leadership. The war has strengthened anti-Western forces, and it's worth recalling that Russia still has nuclear weapons. America's friends in Russia took large risks to help achieve this outcome. Winning the peace thus also means new Western efforts to secure Russia a place in an alliance of the democracies.

The anti-Clinton skeptics will never concede he was steadfast in pursuit of a policy that carried great risks to his popularity. But now that the war is ending, perhaps we can focus less on Clinton than on how to turn this outcome to the advantage of the displaced Kosovars and to the struggle for human rights that will be with us long after Clinton is gone.