Two weeks of smart bombs, right-stuff pilots and take-charge generals have made the military, by leaps and bounds, the most confidence-inspiring institution in the country, according to a nationwide Washington Post survey.

The apparent initial success of Operation Desert Storm has led 85 percent of Americans to express a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military, the highest figure in at least two decades. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed also said that the performance of the weapons in the Persian Gulf War had increased their faith in American know-how.

Scholars say there is a chance that such feelings could migrate beyond the battlefield and trigger a broader recovery of national self-esteem. But they add that there is a parallel danger of disillusionment if the war takes a darker turn.

"This war might provide an enormous fillip for America," said Henry Graff, a Columbia University historian. "What we could be seeing . . . is a restoration of the idea that we are a can-do nation."

But, he quickly added, "we're really on the razor's edge. If, after all these images of high-tech weapons, this turns out to be a long and bloody war, it could damage our faith in the presidency and other institutions for a long time."

Television's Powerful Impression

Americans have a history of rallying-round-the-troops at the start of all wars, and the Persian Gulf has been no exception. The 85 percent confidence rating places the military on a perch far above this country's other major institutions, such as big business (24 percent said they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence), the Congress (28 percent), newspapers (29 percent), television (33 percent), schools (40 percent), the Supreme Court (48 percent), and churches (62 percent).

Television footage of bombs that never miss has made a powerful impression. Ninety-four percent of those surveyed said they thought American weapons were performing well, and 83 percent said they had been worth the investment.

"After a decade of $600 toilet seats and $800 hammers, you end up as a taxpayer feeling like maybe all these investments were worth something," acknowledged Tony Podesta, a Democratic campaign strategist and longtime skeptic of military spending.

The poll hints at the potential for a spillover of good will into other realms of public life. American confidence in the federal government to "do what is right" most of the time hovered around 70 percent for the first two decades after World War II. It plunged into the 30 to 40 percent range as a result of Vietnam, Watergate and the 1970s' stagflation, then sunk to an all-time low of 25 percent during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980. It edged back up during the 1980s, and, despite the recession, now stands near its peak of the last 20 years: 46 percent.

Skeptics Call Confidence a Delusion

"There are lots of things going on here besides the wizardry of our weapons," Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg said. "We are acting as the leader of the world. Our friends aren't kicking us. We have the moral high ground. The enemy's leader is wicked. Our president is showing real resolve. Our Congress engaged in a sober debate that was free of rancor and petty politics. And the military has been performing at an extraordinary level."

"If this {war} doesn't do away with the idea that, quote, America is in decline, unquote, nothing will," said Ben Wattenberg, author of a new book extolling this country's strengths. "When the dust settles, you will have had several billion people watching in real time and noting the fact that America is the preeminent political, diplomatic and military force in the world, coming at a time when our popular culture and our political system is the most widely copied and when English is the international language."

Others argue that any surge in national self-confidence that comes on a battlefield is a delusion. "Like the late Victorians, we seem to be discovering ever-new 'frontiers of insecurity' in the world that we, the number one power, feel impelled to guard," Yale historian Paul Kennedy wrote in an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal last week.

Kennedy is author of a best-selling 1988 book that argued the United States, like other great powers throughout history, has been suffering from "imperial overstretch," a failure to strike a realistic balance between its military capabilities and its domestic and social needs. "My own concern is much more with the future, a decade or more down the road, if trends in national indebtedness, low productivity increases, mediocre educational performance and decaying social fabric are allowed to continue at the same time massive American commitments of men, money and materials are made in different parts of the globe," he wrote last week.

Harvard Prof. Joseph S. Nye has countered that the United States is a "rich nation that acts poor," and that it has ample resources to play the role of world leader while it also tackles nagging problems at home. What it has lacked in recent decades, he said, is a belief in itself.

"We have a unique opportunity to reverse a lot of animosity and disappointment that people have had about their institutions generally, and I think we ought to seize on it," said Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.). "We put $2.3 trillion into the defense industry in the past decade and we're seeing the payoff. You put $2.3 trillion into trying to make our economy competitive with Japan and Germany and imagine what results you can get."

Added Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.): "Americans, uniquely, are our own worst critics . . . {but} just as the world had confidence in American products because they were amazed at our ability to execute the Apollo program, when this war is over people are going to be reminded that a nation that can place a bomb from 10,000 feet through a doorway can also manufacture a good machine tool."

Even those who hold such upbeat views acknowledge that the war may yet take a bloodier turn and grow less popular. Further, the political landscape of the postwar era is unpredictable.

"There is a danger that President Bush, if he achieves a military victory, might try to turn the country into the policeman of the world," said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "That's the mistake of overreaching, the one Wilson made after World War I.

"On the other hand, he has a chance to say that after this glorious victory, we need a New American Order to tackle problems of deficits and debt and stagnant standard of living. If he doesn't, the Democrats will do it for him."

Polling analyst Sharon Warden contributed to this report.