THE FINELY CALIBRATED BOMBING of Serbia exemplifies a conventional wisdom that emerged soon after the 1991 Gulf War: The only wars American public opinion will sanction are those that may be fought bloodlessly and, hence, from the air. There is a paradox here. During the era of universal conscription, which lasted a mere three decades, nearly half a million American families lost sons in foreign wars. Until the later stages of the war in Vietnam, those losses were borne with remarkable fortitude. Today, of course, the United States fields an all-volunteer military. And yet, according to the new wisdom, the mere prospect of ground operations will quash the resolve of a citizenry for which, apparently, the contests of the post-Cold War era offer no great purpose.

But is the prevailing wisdom accurate? Do Americans instinctively recoil at the very mention of ground troops? At least to judge from the opinion polls, the answer is no. Consider, to begin with, Operation Desert Storm, where the public was instructed to and did anticipate thousands of U.S. casualties. Dire predictions notwithstanding, fully 84 percent of those polled on the eve of the war backed the use of ground troops to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Nor is public willingness to employ ground forces merely a function of some narrowly defined national interest. Last week, for example, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 57 percent of respondents supported the use of combat troops in Kosovo -- not an overwhelming figure, but a clear majority nonetheless. Then, too, a Gallup poll taken last year finds that even the continued presence of U.S. soldiers in Bosnia commands majority support.

In the case of Desert Storm, public support for ground troops intensified over a six-month period, largely in response to presidential cajoling. On the matter of Kosovo, however, a willingness to deploy American soldiers has developed independently of White House leadership: When the president finally saw fit to mount his podium, it was mainly to make the case against ground operations. In this instance, at least, a famously poll-driven White House is less reacting to public fears than projecting its own.

Indeed, reluctance to place at risk the nation's military professionals emanates from the top down these days. Every since the 1993 Somalia debacle, which for Bill Clinton was the first sustained public humiliation of his presidency, risk-averse war managers at the White House have tailored America's strategic goals to reflect the president's own preoccupation with casualties. Within the administration, that sensitivity has proved contagious. "We intend to take care of you . . . to minimize the risk to your lives," Secretary of Defense William Cohen pledged to his uniformed subordinates on the eve of an aborted operation against Iraq last year. "That's why [the mission] has been very carefully circumscribed." And that, too, is why the Clinton team has assured the American public (and Slobodan Milosevic) of its determination not to send combat troops to Kosovo.

Instead, its members have sought in vain to devise a methodology for unshackling themselves from war's messy logic. Substituting tactical scoring for genuine measures of military effectiveness, the administration has shown a clear preference for directing sporadic fusillades of cruise missiles at inanimate objects in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Bosnia, and now Serbia. And when compelled to employ ground troops, the administration has had them hunker down in base camps, and declared "force protection" the ne plus ultra of the deployment.

Needless to say, such practices have evolved in response to imagined political imperatives rather than the nation's strategic interests. And, indeed, the self-defeating preoccupation with casualties has led to strategic paralysis. While the tendency to advertise our fears as if they were virtues no doubt comforts the sensibilities of national security advisers and senators, it undermines U.S. credibility on the international scene and encourages adversaries to conclude that they enjoy more room to maneuver than American rhetoric would suggest -- as in fact they do. Hence, Slobodan Milosevic, like Saddam Hussein before him, opts to call America's bluff, sensing rightly that the administration's enlightened sensitivities comprise its Achilles' heel. The eagerness of administration officials to liken Milosevic to Hitler and Pol Pot notwithstanding, the Serb dictator recognizes that the cost of halting his contemptible depredations is not one that Americans -- or, rather, American officials -- will be willing to pay.

In the serene conviction that victory on the battlefield may be achieved without sacrifice -- and that the public will not, in any case, endure much loss -- the administration has become caught in a bind of its own devising. For the objectives it routinely sets for itself -- from destroying Iraq's weapons program to halting ethnic cleansing in Kosovo -- plainly cannot be accomplished with the risk-free means it favors. On the contrary, the destruction of the targets our opponents most value -- their infantry battalions, tactical headquarters, and staging areas -- can only be achieved with low-flying attack aircraft or ground forces and, hence, considerable peril. The sooner the White House acknowledges this unwelcome truth and seeks to persuade rather than be persuaded, the sooner American military power might recover its utility as an instrument of national policy.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is executive editor of the National Interest.