When political and military leaders contemplate the use of military force, the only thing more dangerous than an unquestioned assumption is a false analogy.

Unfortunately, both are present in the administration's current thinking on the gulf.Now that President Bush has announced plans that could bring total U.S. ground forces in the gulf to 380,000, the unquestioned assumption seems clear enough: The use of American troops is an all-or-nothing proposition requiring a massive air strike in Iraq followed by an equally massive ground offensive into Kuwait and perhaps even Iraq.

The false analogy is to the American experience - military and political - in Vietnam. The military half of the analogy warns against the dangers of incremental escalation. The political half argues that military operations have to be quick and decisive to maintain political support.

Militarily, however, the gulf could hardly be more unlike Vietnam. First, Iraq can get no new equipment from its military suppliers. Once we have eliminated Iraq's aircraft and anti-aircraft forces, we can launch unchallenged air strikes against its ground forces.

Also we are not facing a guerrilla war in dense jungle but a conventional engagement in the open desert. A strategy of attrition based on air attacks is thus far more promising than it was in Vietnam.

Why hurry to launch a ground offensive to match air attacks on Iraqi forces? The United States and its allies would suffer far lower human and political costs if Iraq attacked U.S. forces in fortified positions in Saudi Arabia than if the United States launched a ground attack against Iraqi forces entrenched in Kuwait.

No incremental escalation could result in greater casualties than would a ground invasion of Kuwait, much less Iraq. If Saddam Hussein does not give in to escalation, then a U.S. ground offensive into Kuwait would be far more effective and far less costly if we had first destroyed his air force and unleashed several months of air attacks on his tanks and artillery.

The political analogy between Vietnam and the gulf is equally misleading. The clear difference here is we need our allies' support if our political coalition is to hold together should we take military action.

The American public and our allies are likely to support action if our justification is clear and if Saddam is forced to take responsibility for any escalation.

For example, the United States could announce we and our Arab allies will not recognize Iraq's claim to sovereignty over Kuwaiti airspace. We could follow this up by having Arab, British, French and American aircraft escort Kuwaiti fighters in flights over Iraqi forces in Kuwait.

If Saddam challenged such flights using forces from inside Kuwait, he would clearly be an aggressor acting in occupied territory. This would give us a rationale for an air war of attrition in Kuwait.

If he used forces from Iraqi territory, he would provide a stronger legal and political basis for air attacks on aircraft, air defense forces and nuclear and chemical facilities in Iraq.

We should maintain a distinction between military action in Kuwait and in Iraq as long as Saddam does - but not one minute longer.

Moreover, the United States and its allies would have a stronger justification for rejecting Iraqi sovereignty over Kuwait and beginning air strikes there. Finally, challenging Saddam in the air first highlights our advantages in fighter and Awacs aircraft and satellite intelligence.

Maintaining political support and limiting casualties also requires that we limit out initial war aims to returning to the status quo ante. Though it may be tempting to launch a massive air strike against Saddam, his military forces in Iraq and Kuwait and his nuclear and chemical weapons programs, this would exact too high a human and political cost.