The Bush administration has described the current conflict with Iraq as a crisis over a series of challenges to UN resolutions. It is also a crisis over the authority of President Saddam's regime. There is no reason to believe that strikes directed against air defence batteries or weapons factories will damage this authority much. They may even enhance it. The conflict may indeed produce a challenge that cannot be met by air power alone.
The United States and its allies have command of the air. No Iraqi pilot can be keen to venture close to the no-fly zones at the moment, while their air defences are ineffectual and have recently been rendered more so. So long as the coalition has freedom of the skies, few targets are out of its reach.
But air power has inherent limits. Ensuring that the right targets are hit requires not only precision weapons but precision intelligence - and intelligence can at times be dated, incomplete or plain wrong. Sometimes the precision guidance fails. If the Rashid hotel on Sunday night was damaged by a lost Tomahawk cruise missile, rather than debris from an Iraqi surface-to-air missile, this would be ironic. The hotel was taken off the original target list before Operation Desert Storm two years ago. The basement was believed to contain a command and control centre, but the decision was taken to leave well alone because it was the main hotel for foreign journalists.
The most fundamental limitation of air power lies in its inability to seize political power by itself. When power is based on physical control of territory, it can be challenged only by ground forces. This was why Gen Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued against sole reliance on air power to liberate Kuwait. The 'fundamental flaw' of 'surgical air strikes or perhaps a sustained air strike', he insisted, was that it would leave the initiative with the Iraqi President. 'He makes the decision as to whether he will or will not withdraw. He decides whether he has been punished enough so that it is now necessary for him to reverse his direction and take a new political tack.' The air power enthusiasts took no account of President Saddam's demonstrable willingness and ability 'to absorb punishment, to expend Iraqi lives and to care not a whit about what happens to the citizens of his country'.
The case for using only air power now is that the current crisis is not over the control of territory but over the enforcement of UN resolutions. The Bush administration claims that it is tailoring the punishment to the crime. When President Saddam refuses to move air defence batteries or allow UN access to specific facilities, they will be struck.
They see this as a natural response to President Saddam's long-term 'cheat and retreat' strategy since the Gulf war. The Iraqi leader has refused to give an inch in rhetoric, while moving sufficiently in practice to deny the Americans a pretext for renewed military action. This led to a series of probing actions. Obstructing the work of UN weapons inspectors tested Washington's patience, and that of the UN in general, but Iraq left enough wriggle room for last-minute concessions whenever an ultimatum was issued. The White House signalled that it had had enough of such games when it announced last week that there would be no more ultimatums.
For President Saddam, however, this was part of a larger game of reasserting his authority after the Gulf war defeat. All Baghdad's bluster of the past few days, including the promise to recapture Kuwait, has been designed to reinforce the image of a man who dared to stand up to the West, and survived. His people still suffer for his past recklessness, but he has sought to divert responsibility from himself to the allies. The economic predicament facing Iraq is blamed on punitive sanctions. The air strikes help to confirm the West's irredeemable hostility.
President Saddam may have no serious military response to the air raids, but nor are they of great consequence for his rule. If this was the West's main purpose in using air power, it would have to launch direct attacks on the socioeconomic structure of Iraq, and especially Baghdad. But this would be considered unacceptable in both ethical and legal terms by the broader international community.
In practice, the major threat to President Saddam's rule comes not from allied air attacks but from his effective loss of territorial control to Kurds in the north and Shias in the south. This is the legacy of the post-war insurrection. Although the Western countries initially distanced themselves from the rebellion, they could not ignore the relentless persecution of the defeated rebels. This led to the policy of safe havens and no-fly zones, based on the vague humanitarian UN Resolution 688. It is this that has brought the crisis with Iraq to a head, rather than the more precise and tough Resolution 687, which covers weapons inspections and the Kuwaiti border.
Despite the no-fly zones, President Saddam has continued to shell Shia positions and tried to starve the Kurds into submission by obstructing relief convoys. According to the Kurds, he has been gathering forces for a major push against them. This would be one possible response to the latest strikes, and one that might cruelly expose the weakness of the coalition's strategy. Unless the allies were prepared to send in ground forces (as became necessary in April 1991), the Kurds could suffer terribly once again.
Criticism of the West related to the limitations of air power is one thing. The charge of double standards that has been heard recently in connection with Bosnia is something quite different, and misplaced. The same strategy is being applied to both, with the same limited results - owing to the same reluctance to commit ground forces and become involved in civil wars. In both cases no-fly zones have been declared. In both cases the main struggle for power continues on the ground - where no-artillery zones and no-ethnic-cleansing zones have had almost no success at all.
Lawrence Freedman is the co-author, with Efraim Karsh, of 'The Gulf Conflict 1990-1991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order', published by Faber at pounds 20.Reuse content