TO hold American casualties down, war planners appear inclined to carry on the air war for as long as it continues to weaken Iraqi ground forces in Kuwait. But political factors press against letting the war run too long. A whole raft of repercussions of the Gulf war hang on how long the war lasts, and by some measures, three months could be a long time.
Every day that passes, Saddam Hussein gains more stature in the Arab world for defying a superpower.
Ramadan, an Islamic holy month, arrives in March, when fighting could serve to reinforce Iraq's claim that the war has religious overtones.
If the war lasts until mid-April, the cost of it could precipitate a deep recession, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan warned last week.
If recent wars are any guide, then the longer this war takes, the greater the risk of domestic support falling off.
One practical problem: In late February, the weather in the Gulf region grows windier, creating sandstorms and making operations more difficult.
So far, the war has progressed according to most plans and predictions. Military objectives have apparently been met quite decisively, and casualties for the anti-Iraq coalition have been astoundingly low.
Yet any expectation that such a successful show of force would bring this war to a fast and easy conclusion has evaporated. The Iraqis show no sign of capitulating.
Despite this, Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, emphasized Sunday on NBC's ``Meet the Press'' that it would be a mistake for US-led forces to rush into a ground assault just because Iraq gives the appearance of standing firm in the face of allied air raids.
Iraqi tenacity is playing well with many in countries such as Egypt, Algeria, and Pakistan. ``Saddamism,'' explains American University professor of international relations Leon Hadar, translates into an anti-Americanism that is part Arab nationalism and part Islamic fundamentalism.
``For the next few weeks, support for Saddam will grow,'' says Philip Mattar, director of the Institute for Palestinian Studies. ``But if it goes on for months, it will be disastrous.''
The most important risk of a rise in ``Saddamism'' is that governments in the region could be turned out for siding with the United Nations coalition. Syria is considered most at risk, even though it is a police state where dissent is heavily repressed.
According to Robert Neumann, director of Middle Eastern studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, these political problems are manageable if the war ``does not last excessively long, by which I mean two or three months.''
If the war is over in less than three months, then the US has a chance of enhancing its credibility in the region, Mr. Neumann says. As nearly every expert observer points out, Arabs respect strength - as do most peoples.
Many believe that if the fighting continues into Ramadan, when the Muslim faithful fast during daylight hours, it will galvanize Arabs and non-Arab Muslims against the US-dominated coalition.
Arabs themselves have never shown any reluctance to fight wars during Ramadan, but the symbolism is different, notes Mr. Mattar, ``when fighting the infidel.''
Certain events could shorten the calendar further for politically polarizing the region. Marvin Feuerwerger, senior strategic scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, says there are two risks:
If the US is perceived to cause large-scale civilian casualties in Iraq or seek eradication of the country, then Arab and Muslim anti-Americanism could galvanize sooner.
If a regime in the region falls (other than Iraq), it could have a dramatic impact on the others.
Even under current conditions, says Mr. Feuerwerger, if Saddam is still fighting two months after the war began, ``that's pretty long.''
The calendar for domestic American support for the war effort is likely to be more forgiving, although speculation is loose.
Public support for war declines more based on the number of casualties than on how long a war takes, according to John Mueller, a political scientist at the University of Rochester who has studied public opinion and war. Both Korea and Vietnam were popular wars at the beginning, he notes. But casualties were heavy early on in Korea, and public support dropped quickly. In Vietnam, casualties came more slowly, and public support dropped more slowly.
``My feeling is that tolerance for casualties will be lower than in Korea or Vietnam,'' he says.
Political consultants for both parties see plenty of time for President Bush to play out the air campaign.
``My sense is that he has at least six to eight more weeks before he starts hitting any real problems,'' says Republican consultant Eddy Mahe. ``And every time he has a really neat victory, it buys him a little more time.''
``He's got three months, six months, even to the end of the year on this war, as long as it looks like it's progressing,'' says Democratic consultant and pollster Stanley Greenberg.
Last week, Federal Reserve Board chairman Greenspan told The New York Times that if the war lasts more than three months, it would abort quick recovery from the current recession - an effect he attached less to the actual cost of the war than to erosion of consumer confidence.