WASHINGTON -- The Iraqi attack on Israel has confirmed the political wisdom of the policy the White House adopted of trying to wet down euphoria over the success of its first air strikes against Baghdad.
The message is clearly that defeating Saddam Hussein may not be accomplished either as quickly or as surgically as the low-cost first operation might have led Americans to believe. And it is a message that the White House obviously wanted to drive home before it faces the possibility that the 500,000 Iraqis may have to be rooted out of Kuwait with ground forces.
President Bush and his advisers have understood all along that holding together at least a semblance of majority support at home is essential to the eventual success of the policy. But the early military success evoked such a giddily optimistic response that the White House was in danger of raising expectations that could not be fulfilled.
Thus, early yesterday, Bush himself made a point of saying there would be "some downs, or the trauma of the moment" in the progress of the war before Saddam is defeated. Then Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney added: "I think it's very important to remember . . . we are at the very beginning of an operation that may go on for a considerable time." The same theme was sounded by one administration official after another all day.
Neither Bush nor Cheney said so explicitly, but the clear implication was that this "operation" is not going to be one without a price. And the reports last night of ground forces moving north through Saudi Arabia toward Kuwait and the Iraqi border indicated that the kind of military action likely to be most costly -- a ground attack on those entrenched Iraqi troops -- may be imminent.
The political element in the White House calculations is not one that the administration can be expected to discuss publicly. The convention is to behave as if all decisions are made solely on their merits. But anyone who knows how the White House works -- any White House under any president of either party -- understands that there is a political factor in every decision, large or small, made there.
In this case, Bush found himself in a position similar to that of a candidate who is supposed to win a primary handily and thus decides he must "lower expectations," as the political operatives always put it, so that even a narrow victory will be interpreted as a sign of strength. It was just such reasoning that lay behind the attempts to cool the fires of nationalistic enthusiasm that flared up after the first night's air strikes.
The inevitably immediate opinion surveys taken after the first night found three-fourths of the country behind Bush's decision to launch the attack. But political professionals know such findings can be grossly misleading. There is a strong predisposition to support the president in time of international tensions, and this inclination is always even more pronounced when it involves a military confrontation. That was obvious in such episodes as the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and the incursion into Panama two years ago, neither of which involved any significant peril to American forces.
But the professionals -- and the White House -- also know that there is a limit to the tolerance of the voters toward an operation that seems to go sour because the consequences have not been properly foreseen. That was obvious, for example, in the angry reaction then-President Carter evoked when the "Desert One" mission to rescue the hostages in Iran failed in 1980. The first danger, then, has been that the campaign to liberate Kuwait would be too protracted and costly in American lives.
The attack on Israel added a dangerous new element, however, by raising the possibility that the war against Saddam Hussein might turn into a conflagration that would involve the entire Middle East. That is a lot different from flying more than 1,000 sorties over Iraq and losing a single pilot that first night.
If Israel continues to show restraint and Iraq does not launch further attacks, the missile episode may serve principally as a -- of cold water to remind Americans and the rest of the world that Saddam Hussein cannot be eliminated without any cost.
Bush and his advisers were trying to deliver that message all day yesterday. But Saddam Hussein made the point in terms everyone can understand.