WASHINGTON — Washington. DICK CHENEY cited the obvious and traditional reasons for firing Gen. Michael Dugan, the Air Force chief of staff who talked too much. Among other things, he said, generals shouldn't talk about future military plans and targeting foreign leaders.
But the secretary of defense understandably skirted the reasons why such talk is particularly dumb in the current Persian Gulf situation, in confrontation with an enemy like Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Hussein may well be plotting terrorist attacks to respond to moves against him, and need no more provocation to carry out those plans. Sen. William Cohen, for example, a member of both the Armed Services and Intelligence committees who recently visited the area, doubts that General Dugan's remarks would make such attacks any more likely. After all, Mr. Hussein already has made Iraq a world center of terrorism, hosting those who carried out earlier attacks on Western targets.
But if he were undecided about sending bomb-throwers or assassins abroad, consider what effect the general's talk could have: He spoke of using air strikes to ''decapitate'' Iraqi leadership. He said hitting military objectives would be less effective than bombing downtown Baghdad. He said the best way to hurt Mr. Hussein was to aim at his family, his personal guards and even his mistress.
If a responsible Air Force general speaks that way in an atmosphere of armed restraint, how must it sound to a megalomaniac dictator and to fugitive hit men whose very business is murder? Conceivably it could encourage Mr. Hussein to back down, but on his record it seems more likely to provoke him to strike first, in kind.
Senator Cohen would not be surprised if Mr. Hussein tried to use terrorism to destabilize next-door Jordan, where the king's rule is already shaky. That would threaten Israel, which might respond by going to war against Iraq -- and politically, there is nothing Mr. Hussein would like more. That presumably would turn around the anti-Israel Arab nations that opposed his invasion of Kuwait.
It would be natural, Mr. Cohen says, for Mr. Hussein to use terrorism rather than direct military action against the 26 nations now committed against him. He could inspire creation of some nebulous front group like those supported by Iran, and when it claimed credit for a terrorist attack, who could be sure whom to blame?
As Mr. Cheney said, General Dugan's remarks fly in the face of the standing presidential executive order against assassination of foreign leaders. He did not discuss the appropriateness of such an order in today's world. But by mentioning it in connection with air strikes, he opens a question others already have asked about the 1986 U.S. raid that pinpointed Muammar el Kadafi's tent in Libya.
That raid was approved by President Reagan to retaliate for Libyan-supported terrorist attacks, specifically one in which American troops were killed in Berlin. It is referred to favorably because although it did not kill Colonel Kadafi, it obviously scared him: After it, such terrorism dropped sharply.
Although the administration did not admit that it had tried to kill Colonel Kadafi, officials delighted in describing how close the raid had come. Because it happened while the executive order against assassination was in place, it seemed to say that the order covered only close-range assassination like rifle shots or car bombs, while laser-guided aerial bombing was another matter.
Drawing a fine line between ways of killing is just as illogical as ruling that murder on one level is assassination, and another is legitimate warfare. Mr. Cheney complained about General Dugan's talk of ''targeting specific foreign individuals.'' But every day in war, both sides target individuals -- the individual enemy fighter pilot, machine gunner, platoon leader.
If political leaders who start wars are protected by executive order while front-line soldiers who merely follow orders are acceptable targets, then we have come a long way since 1944, when no objections were heard here to the German generals' ill-fated plot to kill Hitler.
And that is precisely the case: we have indeed come a long way. En route, our agents have attempted to kill Fidel Castro, and many suspect that John Kennedy's assassination was the result. We have endured the great confessional of the mid-Seventies, when the dirtiest secrets of the CIA were disclosed, and the government promised to play fair from then on.
We live in a time when we often make war, but seldom call it that -- a time when generals must be discreet, lest they call attention to the hypocrisy of the rules we live by.