LONDON, Feb. 9 (JTA) — Washington is damned if it does and damned if it doesn”t. If it launches a military strike against Iraq, it risks deepening the rift with those countries that oppose such action. If it does not, it risks appearing to lack resolve, which will significantly erode its diplomatic prestige and its role as the global superpower. Iraq”s president, Saddam Hussein, by contrast, has played a brilliant hand, timing his provocations — the denial of U. N. inspectors access to suspected weapons sites — with exquisite precision. Saddam has succeeded in peeling off the Arab component of the 1991 Gulf War coalition, which provided an umbrella of legitimacy for a U.S.-led attack against an Arab state. And he has neutralized three of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Russia, China and France — by raising the possibility of lucrative post-sanctions trade contracts and appealing to their economic self-interest. Washington must now make do with a somewhat threadbare diplomatic cover: The wholehearted backing of Britain and the lukewarm support of Kuwait, the sole Arab state to back action against Iraq. Syria has been the only Arab nation to flatly condemn any U.S. actions, but the rest have given mixed signals at best. Saudi Arabia this week denied the use of its bases for American attacks on Iraq, leaving the U.S. secretary of defense, William Cohen — who visited the Saudis to drum up their support — seeking to downplay the need for their bases. The lack of a strong coalition against Iraq creates the prospect of a military action that carries diplomatic consequences for Washington that are entirely unpredictable and potentially catastrophic. Saddam knows he cannot seriously resist, let alone defeat, America”s overwhelming technological sophistication and firepower, and he will mount a mere token resistance — perhaps reserving his retaliation for Israel and Saudi Arabia. More important, he knows that diplomatic gains will far outweigh the punishment that he — or, rather, the Iraqi people — will have to absorb. He has nowhere to go but up if he survives. From Washington”s perspective, the outlook is far more complex. An air strike on Iraq will, at best, devastate Saddam”s command, control, communications and logistical facilities. At worst, it could end in disaster and disgrace if it causes major civilian casualties, which could well lead to international demands for the operation to be aborted. Either way, Saddam wins. Purely physical damage, as he demonstrated after the 1991 Gulf War, can be swiftly and effectively repaired, while civilian casualties — which worry Western leaders far more than the Iraqi leader — will play into his hands by casting the United States in the role of imperialist hooligan and international pariah. Either way, Saddam will be the besieged and battered underdog who faced down the mightiest power on earth. Military action may also produce another significant gain for Baghdad if it serves to deepen the rift between Washington and Russia, China and France. They might well reciprocate to what they perceive as Washington”s unilateral resort to the military option with a unilateral abandonment of sanctions against Iraq. Saddam”s gamble will then have paid off in spades. The most serious flaw in Washington”s threat of military action against Iraq is its failure to define clear and achievable military goals and objectives. U.S. officials speak of their determination to prevent Saddam from acquiring the capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction and the missiles for delivering them. But this is not a goal that can be achieved by air strikes. Chemical and biological weapons are portable and relatively easy to hide — as are missiles and launchers. Nor, for that matter, can air strikes destroy the knowledge of scientists and engineers who have the technical skills to develop the weapons and the missiles. U.S. officials know which sites have been denied to the U.N. weapons inspectors, and they may well suspect where chemical and biological weapons are being manufactured and stored. But it is beyond even the most optimistic expectations that all of these highly toxic, highly concentrated weapons will be found and destroyed by aerial bombardment. Asking American pilots and missile-guidance crews to achieve such an amorphous goal amounts to a futile, needle-in-the-haystack exercise. The goal of the 1991 Gulf War was both clear and achievable — to drive Iraq out of Kuwait and restore Kuwait”s ruling family. The military goal now — to deny Saddam the capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery — is almost certainly not achievable. A military campaign with unclear and unattainable goals raises more questions than it answers: At what point will the United States be able to credibly declare that it has achieved its objective? And if it cannot be achieved, how will the United States justify the millions of dollars worth of smart bombs and the enormous losses — strategic and, quite possibly, human? Will President Clinton be tempted to commit ground troops in a bid to force access to some of the forbidden sites? And what if, as is widely discussed, Saddam decides to switch the focus by launching a missile attack on Israel? Last week, Cohen said that Washington would “strongly urge” Israel not to retaliate if Iraq were to launch a missile assault. But that was not the prevailing view among other top American officials. And indeed, after meeting in Germany over the weekend with the Israeli defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, Cohen reversed himself, saying, “Israel obviously has the right of self-defense.”” At this point, two safe bets can be made: First, a U.S. military action which is not completely successful will carry a high price tag — a significant relaxation of sanctions, perhaps, or their complete abandonment. Second, the United States will pay for the strike in Israeli currency; winning favor in the Arab world again will involve substantial gestures — recognition of a future Palestinian state, perhaps, and overt pressure on Jerusalem to make large concessions to the Palestinians. Among the Arab world, particularly the Persian Gulf states, there would likely be much private cheering — despite the current posturing to the contrary — should American jets and cruise missiles start racing to their targets in Iraq. Much of the reluctance of Arab leaders to publicly support a U.S. action comes because they do not trust the resolve of the international community to contain Saddam indefinitely. Their abiding nightmare is that sanctions will, one way or another, come to an end and they will be left to face the wrath of Saddam, who is both willing and able to use non-conventional weapons against them. The problem for the Arab states — and indeed for much of the rest of an uncomprehending world — is not Saddam”s arsenal of non-conventional weapons, his Scud missiles or his technicians who produce the deadly toxins and design their means of delivery. The problem, many believe, is Saddam. Period.