One of the axioms of war is that military success can be elusive and fragile even when it seems to be within one's grasp. Another axiom is that military victory does not always guarantee political victory.

Those points should be kept firmly in mind as the U.S.-led coalition in the Persian Gulf responds to the attack by Iraqi missiles on civilian centers in Israel and to the threat of more such attacks on such people even though Israel is not involved in the effort to expel Iraq from Kuwait.One risk of such missile attacks is that Israel could play into Saddam Hussein's hands by retaliating against Iraq, a course that could splinter the unique new alliance between Arab nations and western powers.

Another risk is that the allies might yield to the temptation to respond to the missile attacks by pounding Iraq not just into submission but into a bloody pulp.

Both risks could become especially acute if Iraq makes repeated missile attacks on Israel. Or if Iraq replaces the conventional explosives in the warheads of its missiles with chemical or biological agents. Or if Iraq starts parading captured allied pilots before television cameras and tries to claim they were ordered to attack not just military targets but schools and hospitals.

The missile attack on Israel seems to be a clear indication that Saddam is not inclined to look for an early way out of the war. It is also further evidence that Saddam is not just indulging in idle posturing when he makes various vile threats.

For Israel's part, it must be hard for the government to stay its hand. The Israelis have long held that they must respond to Arab attacks if Israel's own words and deeds are to have any deterrent effect.

Despite the provocation, Israel must restrain itself if the war is to be confined just to Iraq and Kuwait. The war simply must not be allowed to degenerate into a battle between Jews and Muslims. Though Israel has the most powerful military force among all the nations of the Middle East, its own interests would not be served by a retaliation that could bring Jordan into the war on the side of Iraq and pry always-doubtful Syria away from the fragile international coalition against Iraq.

For the coalition's part, its objectives also require careful limits on the use of force. Those objectives are to compel the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait while securing the future stability of the region.

If Iraq is utterly destroyed, however, its twitching carcass could be expected to become the object of prey by some of its neighbors and a source not of stability but of continued conflict.

It's hard to see, though, how the coalition's objectives can be accomplished without removing Saddam from power. Any settlement that left Saddam in charge in Iraq would allow him to claim a moral victory and would contain the seeds of future problems.

Even though Iraq has fired missiles at civilians in a country not attacking it, the United States and its allies must retain the high ground morally as well as militarily. That means that the objective is still not the death of Iraqis. Instead, it is simply their withdrawal from Kuwait.