With the allied recapture of Khafji, the Saudi border town briefly occupied by invading Iraqi forces, the first ground skirmish of the Persian Gulf war has run its course. For Americans, the loss of 11 Marines was a reminder that this war, like all wars, has claws. Early euphoria created by the performance of U.S. wonder weapons is gone, along with the Bush administration's suggestions that the conflict could be over in days or weeks. Now the talk is in terms of months.
Nonetheless, deep despond would be as unjustified as over-optimism. Military historians will likely conclude that the U.S. air campaign against Iraq, now into its third week, was notable for its ferocity and effectiveness. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, estimates that Iraqi troops, are getting only one-tenth of the supplies they need just to sustain themselves. Perhaps, in time, this means the allies will indeed be able to cut off and kill the Iraqi armies massed in and around Kuwait.
Yet Saddam Hussein has made it clear he wants to spill so much blood that American public support for the war will wither and he can escape his current predicament. This being the case, his doomed attack on Khafji seems, in retrospect, almost predictable. In a classic military sense, it was a textbook exercise in probing an enemy, testing his fighting capability, looking for his weak spots. As a propaganda device, it enabled Iraq to claim it was the first to take enemy territory, though with heavy casualties. A dictator with little regard for the lives of his own troops can always put the squeeze on a democracy which treasures its young.
In the end, however, we doubt Saddam Hussein will be able to throw U.S. war strategy off course. Political as well as military imperatives call for the the United States to continue its pounding on Iraq until its army loses much of its capacity to inflict intolerable damage. If the battle of Khafji is followed up by larger Iraqi attacks on Saudi border points, this by no means would be a setback to allied plans. On the contrary, it would mean that Iraqi forces have come out of their bunkers into open space where they are vulnerable to air attacks from skies under U.S. control.
In the meantime, there remains the grim likelihood that Saddam Hussein will resort to terrorism and chemical or even biological warfare, that he will exploit the capture of any U.S. women in uniform to humiliate this country and that he will continue to subject the Persian Gulf, Islam's own lake, to ecological disaster.
The answer to all this must be firm U.S. political leadership, top-flight military command and a well-informed, determined American populace that Saddam Hussein has consistently underestimated -- as has many a tyrant before him.