Make haste slowly - the most basic Roman military principle - fits the moment exactly.

If we patiently continue the air offensive, the war should end quite soon, and conclusively.If, by contrast, the ground forces are now unleashed in an urge to finish off this war quickly with one great blow, the outcome is likely to be prolonged and inconclusive - even if there is a smashing battlefield victory at first.

U.S. military sources widely cited by the media claim that the long-planned ground offensive would startle the world with its rapid successes and low casualties for American troops.

Such boasting is premature, to say the least. But there is no reason to doubt that Iraq's army - already substantially reduced and almost immobilized by air power - could indeed be quickly defeated.

The heavy hand of military censorship notwithstanding, it is no longer a secret that the decisive action is to be fought by the U.S. Army's armored and mechanized forces ready and waiting near the junction of the Iraqi, Kuwaiti and Saudi borders.

Moving northeast, they are to bypass virtually all Iraqi frontal defenses on their way to the Basra area.

Thus, they would slice Kuwait off from Iraq without encountering any of Saddam Hussein's forces other than the heavily bombarded Republican Guard around Basra.

Because the Marine forces positioned south of Kuwait will not in fact try a frontal attack against Iraqi minefields, artillery, fire barriers and entrenched troops, early estimates of tens of thousands of U.S. casualties no longer apply.

The Marines will stage amphibious landings, but casualties should be low.

The Army's decisive move should result in as few casualties as the military sources claim: In previous episodes of Middle East desert warfare - Rommel vs. the British, Israelis vs. Arabs - superior armored forces have always advanced far and fast if their side controlled the air.

But Middle East experience should also remind us that even spectacular battlefield victories do not necessarily end wars.

In fact, they may merely inaugurate far more frustrating confrontations with the inchoate yet costly resistance of enemies that will neither make war nor accept peace.

We know that there is a plan for the Army's entry into Iraq. But is there a plan to get it out again?

Unless we intend to march on Baghdad to remove Iraq's ruler and install a new one, the victorious advance to cut off Kuwait would have to be followed by a wait for the emergence of a "reasonable" Iraqi government.

Because Iraq has never before had a reasonable government, the wait might be long.

If, on the other hand, we create a new government, it would be seen as an American puppet, bound to be overthrown the minute U.S. forces are withdrawn.

And if, finally, we leave it to the Egyptians, Saudis and Kuwaitis to cope with the disorder, even the remnants of the Iraqi army could drive them out.

Only Syria and Iran acting jointly could control Iraq, but that would threaten U.S. interests far more seriously than a defeated Iraqi regime ever could.

Patience now can save many lives and avoid a protracted engagement in Iraq that would continue to divert us from addressing domestic problems that threaten the future of America.