Washington -- For many decades, American military encounters with non-Western opponents, including Iraq in the recent war for Kuwait, have been habitually characterized by pre-hostilities mis-estimation of the other side's military capabilities, especially what military historian Martin van Creveld has termed ''fighting power.''
He means ''the moral, intellectual and organizational'' dimensions of military power manifested in such things as ''discipline and cohesion, morale and initiative, courage and toughness, the willingness to fight and the readiness, if necessary, to die.''
The quality of Japan's technology, especially ships and aircraft, was grossly underestimated before Pearl Harbor, as were the ingenuity and daring of Japanese operational planning and the tenacity of its forces. In the Korean war, U.S. military leaders, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur, initially pooh-poohed the prospect of Chinese intervention, largely because the Chinese army was regarded as a technologically primitive force (it was) incapable of surviving any collision with superior U.S. firepower (it did).
More than a decade later, and despite the Korean experience, the Pentagon entered yet another war in Asia against what many believed was a ''third-rate'' army (which it was by American standards) composed largely of pajama-clad, peasant conscripts.
The recent war for Kuwait was unusual in this respect. Almost without exception, pre-war assessments by the Army War College and other ''expert'' groups credited the Iraqi army, said to be the world's fourth largest (it was sixth, following the armies of the Soviet Union, China, India, Vietnam and North Korea), with formidable fighting power -- a force capable of inflicting tens of thousands of casualties upon U.S. and allied forces assembling in the Arabian desert.
Even those few analysts who believed the Baghdad military machine was a paper tiger were surprised by Iraq's stunningly swift defeat at so little cost in coalition blood.
What accounts for this consistent misjudgment of Third World military prowess? In the case of Japan in the 1940s, China in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1960s, a strong dose of racial, cultural and technological arrogance clearly influenced U.S. perceptions. After all, the three countries were Asian, thus by definition inferior.
All lacked America's industrial might and, in the case of China and Vietnam, air forces and navies capable of challenging U.S. ++ mastery of sky and sea. And none could hope to match the quality of American arms, to say nothing of U.S. firepower.
The price of this arrogance was steep. The cost of defeating Japan was unexpectedly high in casualties and in the conflict's duration. In Korea and Vietnam, it blinded us to the possibility and fact of effective organizational and tactical responses to overwhelming U.S. material superiority.
In the art of guerrilla warfare targeted at both domestic and foreign political audiences, China and North Vietnam had fashioned a strategy and set of tactics that trumped American firepower by simply denying it critical targets, while at the same time imposing a steady drain on U.S. blood and treasure sufficient to undermine American public support for the war effort.
Perhaps in part because of past underestimations on non-Western adversaries, professional assessments of Iraqi strengths before the war for Kuwait erred heavily on the side of caution. Compared to the ''rag-tag'' communist armies in Korea and Indochina, the Iraqi military, a thoroughly conventional army organized and equipped along the familiar Soviet model, was at first glance far more impressive.
Iraqi forces were quite large and contained what on paper appeared to be formidable mobility and firepower. Iraq's 1-million-man army boasted 55 divisions, 5,500 tanks (including more than 500 highly touted Soviet T-72s), more than 8,000 other armored vehicles and 4,000 pieces of artillery.
But there was more at play than a determination to avoid another misjudgment. Assessments of Iraq's fighting power were remarkably free of racial, cultural and even technological arrogance.
However, a profound cultural and professional bias propelled observers to focus on the quantifiable dimensions of Iraqi military power at the expense of such unquantifiable factors as the quality of Iraq's military leadership, command and control, soldiery, operational doctrine and past performance (against Kurds, Israel and Iran).
It was the abysmal quality of these features of the Iraqi military that provided a foundation for the most lopsided victory in modern times. Yet, since the days when Robert S. McNamara brought quantitative analysis to the Pentagon, an infatuation with what can be counted -- numbers of enemy divisions, tanks, planes and ships -- has dominated what is known as military ''threat assessment.''