WASHINGTON — Washington. THE SACKING of the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff sends exactly the wrong message to Saddam Hussein. It runs the risk of confusing the Iraqi dictator about where America really stands and how far President Bush is willing to go to force the Iraqis out of the war-making, war-threatening business.
Just look at America's schizophrenically mixed signals:
In July as Mr. Hussein was secretly preparing his Anschluss of Kuwait, the White House rejected a call of members of the Senate for a cut-off of American economic assistance to Iraq. The administration was apparently unconcerned then with Mr. Hussein's biological- and chemical-weapons programs, to say nothing of Iraq's burgeoning nuclear-weapons and missile ventures.
Then, the inept U.S. ambassador to Baghdad practically skinned her chin on the floor of Mr. Hussein's palace floor in scraping low to reassure this killer of babies that President Bush admired him for rebuilding Iraq since the war with Iran and no, the U.S. has no position on his dispute with Kuwait.
In August, this appeasement policy exploded in the face of the people of Kuwait. Mr. Bush realized that just maybe he had been wrong about the Iraqi, after all. Send the Air Force, call up the reserves, fly to Helsinki and send a videotape to Baghdad. Pretty clear messages now. Mr. Hussein is wondering if maybe this new Bush may be serious, even a serious threat.
Now comes the Air Force chief, Gen. Michael J. Dugan, the kind of earnest G.I. Joe with shoulders full of stars who should never be allowed to open his mouth in a declassified setting without a sharp public-affairs officer sitting by his side to scream ''off the record.''
The general lists for reporters the kinds of targets any intelligent warrior is going to want to hit, including the HQ and nearest and dearest of the evil dictator. It's war we're talking about, remember, with real bombs and lots of dead people -- preferably as few of ours as possible and as many of theirs as necessary to achieve our victory.
Not only was the general direct and clear in his answers to the reporters, he was earnest and candid and delightfully cold-blooded. No sugar coating. Professional. But not so good when you're trying to juggle a bucket of hair-trigger sensitivities among the Arabs newly allied with and paying for Desert Shield.
So, even though G.I. Joe might have inadvertently shaken up Saddam Hussein and accidentally given the president some unexpected leverage, Mr. Bush fires him, sending Mr. Hussein yet the latest mixed signal to emerge from the land of Mickey, Donald and Goofy.
Imagine what might have happened if instead of firing the general, Defense Secretary Cheney had walked into the press briefing room, told reporters he was furious with the chief for disclosing a series of presidential options, and then stalked out of the briefing room without taking questions. Mr. Bush could stroke the Arab allies on the phone and know that his loose-lipped Air Force chief had just been turned into a powerful propaganda bomb.
But by firing the man and saying he was not in the command loop, the president is aiding and abetting Iraqi advisers who have been telling Mr. Hussein that the Americans have no stomach for battle. They are wrong, of course. Beneath that grandfatherly exterior, Mr. Bush is a very dangerous and determined man who will squash Saddam Hussein like the roach he is on the first major provocation.
But the Iraqi may now be so confused about American seriousness of purpose that he may miscalculate and plunge his country into the ruin the general described. G.I. Joe should never have gone on the record like that, but once it was out, his bosses could have seized the moment as a strategic opportunity instead of an embarrassment.
Jeff Kamen, formerly Washington correspondent for Independent Network News, is co-author of ''Final Warning: Averting Disaster in the New Age of Terrorism.''