Oh, what a lovely war it was! The rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that Saint Nick soon would be there. But to our surprise, Santa didn't materialize. It's the foul Grinch, alas, who got the prize.

The Persian Gulf, which President Bush was going to cleanse of tyranny, is in the war's aftermath a charnel house of slaughter and hunger and hellish civilian suffering. It couldn't be any clearer that the president and his men, as they planned their simplistic Super Bowl war, hadn't a clue as to what they were going to do to set things right after they won it.When he declared the cease-fire, Bush, in a shallow public relations maneuver reminiscent of a similar Washington call to arms during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, exhorted all Iraqis who were fed up with their despot Saddam Hussein to rise up and overthrow him. So they rose up - the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south - and now they have been slaughtered, bodies rotting in the streets, with the fleeing survivors seeking refuge in either Turkey or Iran.

What potion did they drink that made the war enthusiasts - the tough-talking White House and some jingo press pundits - think that you could throw the entire combat arsenal of the world's greatest power into the Middle East caldron and have everything come out neat and tidy and smelling like attar of roses? Wars inevitably set in motion wild and primal forces, especially when the crusading army and its leaders weren't sure in the first place what they were crusading for.

In Kuwait, the nation we liberated from the occupation forces of Saddam, the emir is back on his throne, his palace repaired and refurbished by the Corps of Engineers. All the noble talk from Washington about introducing democracy to this feudal kingdom has been abandoned. Instead, Kuwaiti "goon squads" are still taking vengeance against the local Palestinian population regardless of whether their particular targets actually collaborated with the Iraqi occupiers or not.

In Iraq itself, the Kurds who rose up at Bush's urging, believing that he would neutralize Saddam's tanks and warplanes, are now decimated and on the run, trying to avoid a genocidal massacre.

Here is how Associated Press correspondent Alex Efty described the scene in the northern Iraqi town of Diana, 25 miles from the Iranian border, where hospitals have no more room and no more medicine and many of the Kurds are dying of hunger and exposure. "The refugees," the reporter wrote, "formed a solid column of more than 60 miles stretching from the outskirts of Erbil along twisting roads into the mountains as far as Diana. They were packed tightly into all manner of vehicles, some riding in carts, still others on mules."

In the Iraqi south, the Shiites, their uprising already crushed, are either huddling by the thousands around the American units still stationed there or fleeing into exile in Iran.

This war, when you tote it up, has had only two positive results: The Iraqis were forced out of Kuwait, and American casualties were extraordinarily, blessedly light. Everything else is chaos.

All that rhetoric from the president about creating a "new world order" now sounds empty indeed. Did he think that running a war was like running a political campaign - i.e., all you have to do is pummel and weaken your opponent, and then you get to move into the White House and live happily ever after?

Weren't we told, literally, that this was a "just" war because Saddam was a modern-day Hitler? Well, Saddam is still in power in Baghdad. So we took our entire armed forces and sent them to war, and the new Hitler they were sent to defeat is not only alive but still in control of his country. Given this grotesquerie, why should any American be willing to buy the president's hollow postwar cheerleading and call this a victory?

Painfully, we know now that the war wasn't so simple after all. Consider this telling paragraph from a story in Thursday's New York Times by the knowledgeable Thomas L. Friedman: "The administration is telling reporters that it can have it both ways. Administration officials say their policy is to allow President Hussein to restore the central government's control over Iraq in the short run.

"Afterward, they say, the United States can use an arms embargo and economic pressures built into the United Nations cease-fire resolution to encourage Iraqis to replace Mr. Hussein with a more mainstream figure."

Am I dreaming, or isn't this the same embargo-blockade that Bush dismissed as ineffective after giving it only a few months to work last year? And having abruptly concluded that an embargo couldn't work, didn't the president then say that war against Iraq was the only remaining option?

Oh, what a lovely war! If only it weren't so dizzying.