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It's customary to think the American attack on Iraq represents the peak of brutality and massiveness in the use of military force, not least because the Americans themselves described what they were doing as "shock and awe."

However, more recent reports show the rapid victory was actually achieved by measured doses of force, which caused relatively few casualties and relatively little damage. Iraqi tanks were neutralized by smart bombs so precise they didn't even damage the bridges or trees beneath which they were concealed; Iraqis who did not fire back were not attacked, and thousands of Republican Guard fighters were simply allowed to return home.

Thus, deciding when to stop the offensive, and to let the impact of the psychological collapse do its work, was also of crucial importance. The lesson is that you not only have to know how to start wars and wage them economically but, above all, how to end them - an art that has eluded us in Israel for the past 55 years.

It's not hard to imagine how the war in Iraq would have looked if it was waged by Israel. It's possible we would still be bombing Baghdad, only because "we have the ability"; our helicopters would continue to pursue every individual Iraqi fighter to the death; and we would be going from house to house in Tikrit for years with a fine-tooth comb, in order to find the cousin of a "wanted individual" with whom we have to settle accounts in connection with the firing of a rocket a decade earlier. Not to mention our friends the bulldozers, which would certainly level the alleys of Kirkuk and Baghdad from here to eternity, only because, "We have no other choice" and "This is our fate" and "What, are we just going to sit around until they organize?" (as Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon said about the "Abu Mazen bunch" in an Independence Day interview).

The circumstances and conditions are different but there is, nevertheless, a lesson to be learned here by a country that has always paraded the art of victory - in other words, finding the golden mean between total withdrawals and all-out wars that are almost grotesque in terms of the use of power. In the land of overkill and "rolling operations," we never knew when to stop winning and start capitalizing on the victory for strategic profit. Instead, like the sorcerer's apprentice or the Prague Golem, we always went on defeating, pursuing, crushing, trampling, pummeling and rolling, only because, "We have to manage before the cease-fire" and "The Americans aren't yet objecting."

No wonder, then, that at the end of every "war to the death," a political and strategic fiasco awaits us. That's why Hezbollah is sitting on the border and threatening the entire north of the country after all the massive wars in Lebanon; and that's why a hostile Palestinian state is emerging in the east, following the pounding of the Palestinians for two and a half years, including the use of F-16s and one-ton bombs. How ironic that our most important strategic "achievement" - the dismantlement of the "eastern front" - came about despite, or perhaps because of, the non-use of "the IDF's might."

So there is a paradox here. Nearly all our victories come with an elusive taste of the start of a defeat, of wondering why we expended so much force and such vast resources. The latest proof is now at hand, at a time when the tough security line, as managed in the past 30 months by Ariel Sharon, Shaul Mofaz and the high command, should be celebrating its great conceptual victory over the defeat of the "Oslo process": the Palestinian Authority was pulverized, a Palestinian prime minister has taken office and the collapse of Iraq plays into our hands.

So how is it that Yasser Arafat, Hamas and the "hot warnings" of suicide attacks are still with us, and all the more so? How is it that the "burning of the Palestinian consciousness" has not even penetrated the head of Abu Mazen, at least with respect to the partition of Jerusalem and the right of return?

This ironical voiding of victory also finds expression in our political arena, where self-defeating overkill holds sway, too. The fact is that, in contrast to other democracies, victory in Israeli elections is taken by the victor as a license to carry out a coup de grace against the loser; and, if the worldview that loses doesn't gain the protection of what's known as a "unity government," it begins to be trampled and crushed relentlessly. That's what happened to the right and the settlers in the Oslo era of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, and that's what's happening today to the dovish camp. For the past two and a half years, the "right" has won victory after victory, whereas the leaders of the "left" and Labor are crashing in rapid sequence and their parties are being wiped out, ground into dust and ashes. But for how long? And how much winning can be done? And how is it that, out of the dust of these ruins, it is none other than the ghost of Oslo that is emerging in its full glory, or terror, with the thrust to remove settlements, entrust security to the Palestinian Authority, withdraw from territories and recognize a Palestinian state?

To whom the victory, then - the winner or the loser? "The instant of victory is so short that there is no point in living only for it," said the tennis great Martina Navratilova. You have barely managed to celebrate your being Sharon and Mofaz, and suddenly all the Mitzna drains out of you.