THIS week's United States air strike may moderate Iraqi behavior in the short term, but it is unlikely to change Saddam Hussein's basic approach to the forces arrayed against him: Poke, poke, poke, until you get stung.
A number of officials and US experts say they believe that the pattern of confrontation played out in the Gulf this January, two years after Desert Storm, will reappear at some point in the new Clinton administration. It may take weeks, or it may take months, depending on whether the mercurial Saddam thinks he can woo the White House with his foe President Bush gone.
At some point, though, President-elect Clinton is likely to face his own decision about the use of some sort of force against the Iraqi leader. "This seems to be a continuing thing," notes John Macartney, an American University foreign-policy expert.
The bombing raid itself appeared as much a political message as an actual attempt to inflict military harm. (Reaction from the Middle East and Britain, Page 2.) Defense Department officials said targets were limited to air-defense installations in the no-fly zone: four SA-3 mobile surface-to-air missile sites and four air-defense command bunkers.
Initial reports scored the air strike as successful, though officials said detailed damage assessment was not yet completed. Returned fliers said they en- countered only sporadic antiaircraft fire.
In the end administration officials rejected plans calling for a broader air campaign that would have hit airfields, weapons-production sites, and perhaps some symbolic target in Baghdad as well. The idea, they said, was to avoid political controversy in the waning days of an administration while delivering a measured response to Iraq's recent incursions across the border into Kuwait, and its brandishing of air-defense missiles.
"It was consistent with the lack of compliance of the Iraqi government," said Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, commander of the US Central Command, at a briefing at his Tampa, Fla., headquarters.
Last weekend, it had appeared that US threats had caused Iraq to move SA-2 and SA-3 surface-to-air missiles in the southern no-fly zone that it had made operational. Pentagon generals talked openly of an averted crisis.
But later intelligence information showed that these weapons had simply been shuffled around the zone, not removed. And the incursions by Iraqi work crews to recover weapons and materiel across the border in Kuwait appeared to be an intentional slap in the face to the allies, not a genuine misunderstanding of the requirements of United Nations sanctions.
General Hoar said he had no idea what Saddam Hussein's specific purpose had been in his actions, or whether the show of US force would serve as a future deterrent. "I don't think any of us have been very good at predicting what Saddam would do in this regard," he said.
A number of US experts say they believe that the US had little choice but to mount some kind of military operation against Saddam.
Given that he has been testing Western tolerance through such actions as insisting that UN weapons inspectors arrive on Iraqi aircraft, ignoring violations would have meant a redefinition of what Iraq is and is not allowed to do under end-of-the-war UN sanctions.
At the same time, the Iraqi leader is obviously willing to risk the use of bombs against him for the chance to define the agenda of his relationship with the UN and to rally his own populace. His gamble is that the allied response will always be measured.
"From a military point of view, this is not very costly to him," says Ron Hatchett, director of the Mosher Institute for International Policy Studies at Texas A&M University.
IN the wake of Saddam's crushing defeat in the Gulf war, the allies calculated that he had become too weak to worry about. He would be preoccupied with keeping his grip on power at home, they felt, and would not be up to challenging the limits of UN resolutions. Perhaps he would be ousted by his own disaffected populace.
This assumption "was not unreasonable, but it was wrong," says Laurie Mylroie, an Iraq scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The incoming Clinton administration, Mr. Hatchett says, should focus less on the demonized figure of Saddam. Instead, it should sit down and figure out what real US interests are in the region and how to focus on them.