WASHINGTON — THERE IS the story of the masochist who says to the sadist, "Hurt me," and the sadist replies, with exquisite cruelty, "No."
Israel, under the most extreme provocation to respond to missile attack -- and thereby to satisfy Saddam Hussein's desire to shift the focus from his rape of Kuwait to the Arab war against the Jews -- has dealt Baghdad a devastating blow. At least for now, while the dictator lusts for the linkage of engagement, the cruelest Israeli response is no response at all.
Certainly such restraint seems out of character. To turn the other cheek is a tenet of Christianity; modern Israel survives by the predictability of its 10-eyes-for-an-eye answer to terrorist acts. Pride is involved, too; never again the unknowing march to extermination, or misplaced trust in the kindness of strangers.
But the words of Woodrow Wilson are worth remarking in this context. "There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight," the American president said after the sinking of the Lusitania. "There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right."
As Wilson learned, such pride has its limits, and nobody expects Israel to suffer in silence through a poison-gas attack. But by using its head instead of its arms, Jerusalem is denying an enemy a strategic goal while showing the world it is on the side of the right.
Saddam Hussein's Scud-terrorism is no more militarily effective xTC than Hitler's V-2 harassment of London, but makes the case that Israel's need for defensible borders is hardly paranoid. This proof of the implacable hatred Israelis face has embarrassed some of the Palestinians' defenders in the United States.
The American fears of splitting the coalition are exaggerated. The helpless gulf states have no other place to go. Egypt has made clear it won't be tricked into a knee-jerk jihad, and Britain and Turkey are stalwart. That leaves Syria, which might have made a mild contribution if it had moved its tanks to the Iraqi border, but as one U.S. general reminds me, "the last time they tried that, half the Syrian tanks broke down."
We encouraged Israel to outsmart Iraq by offering inducements to absorb attacks without reacting: missile defenses (which U.S. planners should have shipped months ago) and a White House promise to go after the Scud launchers more vigorously (lest Israeli commandos conduct on-site inspections). Diehard Israel-bashers saw this as a nefarious "deal," diverting our bombers from more serious purposes than saving lives; they warned wackily that President Bush promised no international conference in this millennium.
All this is Saddam Hussein's sideshow. We have been focusing most of our attention on about a score of missiles that have come into friendly territory in Israel and Saudi Arabia, most of which flew astray or were shot down by our breathtaking hardware, while more than 50,000 bombs have landed on Iraq.
Wisely, we rejected the queasy French-Egyptian advice to limit our action to Kuwait and have gone to the trouble's source: mass-destruction plants in Iraq, its air defense, communications and elite armored reserve.
Our strategists will now be tugged in two directions: (1) to pause, to give a cease-fire and the nightmare scenario a chance, or (2) to land the Marines and unleash the Army in a Saddam-preferred land war.
Forget both. Give airpower a chance; at the rate of 2,000 sorties a day, we have not yet begun to bomb.
After the unprecedented pounding of the first 50,000 sorties, and the cutoff of water and supplies to the invaders of Kuwait; as Radio Free Iraq reminds the people of Baghdad that their leader's family has already fled to safety; with a massing of the Turkish army in the north, an uprising of the Kurds and perhaps a coup of realistic colonels -- we should have a better picture of the need for ground forces.
Gradualism? No; the air war presses allied strength against enemy weakness. As it succeeds, peace will come, in Wilson's words, "with healing in its wings."
William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.