The Persian Gulf War, now three weeks old, hardly looks like war at all in the sense of an exchange of combat blows. The "totally one-sided" campaign, as President Bush described it yesterday, began by rendering Iraq virtually defenseless against allied air attacks and since has rained bombs and missiles on an apparently prostrate opponent.
In strictly military terms, little still is known about the results of that bombardment, particularly about its impact on Iraqi ground forces. At the same time, some allied officials have begun to wonder whether military assessments alone are an adequate measure of the campaign's success.
In many ways, according to officials and analysts, the two sides are fighting two different wars: one by force of arms, the other with political and psychological rejoinders. Bush yesterday reaffirmed his view of a conventional military engagement that is proceeding "as we planned" toward a territorial objective. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, by necessity or design, has made no successful reply of significance on the battlefield but has sought to portray a conflict of Arab against Zionist and Moslem against infidel.
The two wars, these sources said, leave open the possibility that the more the United States wins on the battlefield, as it is currently configured, the more it may lose politically. Notwithstanding Bush's vow that "there will be no murky ending," administration officials are grappling with the paradox that Saddam -- as long as he survives in power -- could be left with a political victory of sorts even after a crushing military defeat.
"In the Arab world, you don't have to win to be a hero," said a Pentagon policy planner who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It may be that the better we beat him, the better he does."
By military standards, U.S. and allied officials portray the war as one of history's great mismatches. In Vietnam, which saw a much longer but much less intense application of U.S. air power, 2,257 American aircraft were lost. Allied officials report that "the largest air armada ever assembled," as Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly described it yesterday, has lost only 32 aircraft in the Persian Gulf, 23 of them American and 14 of those to Iraqi fire.
Still unseen in three weeks of U.S. briefings and videotapes -- in addition to a single dead body or a clear indication of the condition of the 545,000 Iraqi troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq -- has been a single bomb that missed its target. Maj. Gen. Robert B. Johnston, the U.S. chief of staff in the gulf, went so far as to say Monday he was "not aware" of any bomb that directly struck civilians.
Even by Iraqi accounts, "collateral damage" has been less than expected. One Pentagon estimate immediately before war began projected that a one-month air campaign would probably kill 2,000 Iraqi civilians, according to a knowledgeable official. Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz yesterday reported that 428 civilians have died in allied attacks.
Yet after 47,000 allied sorties, there were signs this week of a growing disquiet. U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, a strong supporter of the American-led effort to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, deplored air attacks that killed Jordanian truck drivers in remarks to reporters on Monday.
More generally, the very scale of the mismatch began to raise the question whether the "just war" proclaimed by the president has been fought with force proportionate to its ends.
Asked at a news conference yesterday whether he was prepared to see allied air forces "literally slaughtering tens of thousands of Iraqi troops," Bush made a succinct statement of his priorities: "Let me be very clear. What concerns me are the lives of our troops . . . . Saddam Hussein should be concerned about the Iraqi forces."
But Saddam, once thought to pin his hopes on high U.S. casualties, may now seek to use the level of Iraqi human and material devastation to political advantage, according to government and independent analysts. Baghdad radio broadcasts, the analysts noted, recently shifted their emphasis from Iraqi military prowess to the allies' "savage and massive bombardment."
"Why are they killing children, women and elderly people in Iraq?" demanded one Monday broadcast addressed to Arabs and Moslems around the world.
Some Arab diplomats in Washington are warning of what one of them called "the 21-day scenario": the prospect that Saddam already has won a victory by merely enduring bombardment as long as he has. The diplomat, whose government has sided with the United States, said Saddam will now assert "that he has been able to withstand the biggest alliance in history for more time than Egypt and Syria combined could fight only Israel in the 1973 war."
"We could get what we think is victory at the same time that he gets what he thinks is victory," said Princeton University professor Charles Kupchan, "but that really raises the question, would we allow him to stay in power or even to remain alive?"
U.S. and allied officials betray no such concerns in public statements.
"I guess I don't buy the argument that he's somehow winning by losing," Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney said Monday.
Growing indications of support for Saddam among Arab and Moslem publics, highlighted by Sunday's demonstration of 300,000 people in Morocco, suggests another interpretation. By assuming (however belatedly) the mantle of the Palestinians, by striking (however weakly) at Israel, and by occupying (however briefly) the Saudi town of Khafji, Saddam appears to have made some inroads on the loyalty of the public he cares the most about.
Allied strategists, while officially silent on the subject, insist they are well aware of the war's psychological dimensions.
One official cited the post-Vietnam Pentagon axiom that "if it's politically important, it can't be 'militarily insignificant.' "
Staff researchers Lucy Shackelford and Michael Slevin contributed to this report.