WASHINGTON — Washington. ACCORDING TO the Western leak machine, the scenario is set for a devastating war in the Middle East.
On a moonless November night, when the deserts of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are seas of blackness, and hardly a magic lantern is lit in the fabled city of Baghdad, a terrible but hopefully short conflict begins.
From 60 ships in the Persian Gulf area, and from bases in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even Egypt and Western Europe, 1,000 tank-killing Apache helicopters and hundreds of A-10 ground attack jets deliver their fury on the 400,000-man Iraqi armored units now positioned in Kuwait. Stealth fighters, Stealth bombers, B-52s and other aircraft unleash what one Pentagon general promised would be ''three to five minutes of the greatest violence known to man'' on the city of Baghdad and upon military bases and other war-making installations in Iraq.
U.S. Marines land on the shores of Iraq at several points, and U.S. special forces burst into Iraqi installations where they hope to rescue Americans held as human shields against a U.S. military attack.
Within four days the U.S. and its European allies will have devastated Iraq, wiping out not only its poison gas and weapons-building facilities, but guaranteeing that never again in century can it become a threat to any other nation. Saddam Hussein and Iraq might as well never have existed, because no phoenix will rise from the ashes of Iraq for a millennium.
The price for this American ''victory'' is 20,000 American casualties, as many dead and wounded among U.S. allies, and greater-than-expected destruction of oil facilities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and some surprisingly costly acts of sabotage in the U.S., Egypt, Israel, France and Great Britain. Almost all the U.S. hostages die.
This scenario can be drawn from ''war plans'' that allegedly were leaked to a French newspaper last week. Is this a case of the U.S. sharing its most delicate military plans with the Mitterrand government, only to have them laid public?
My years in government tell me that this leak was a double trial balloon. I suspect it was inspired by U.S. officials who were hoping, at the deadline for military action, to frighten Iraq's dictator into peaceful withdrawal from Kuwait. The leaked war scenario might have provoked Mr. Hussein into hinting that he would withdraw if he could keep certain disputed territories -- meaning a small part of Kuwait.
The trial balloon may also have been floated to gauge the reaction of the American public to a war that would cost the lives of, or bring lasting injury to, close to 10 per cent of the 250,000 men and women now in the arena of conflict. Would an American public that has grown soft, dependent, angry at the idea of paying even a few hundred dollars more in taxes, really pay the costs in money and many thousands of lives of an assault on Iran?
The trial balloon did not provoke mass protests, even at a time when many American religious leaders were asking President Bush not to resort to war. The war-drums indignation of the days immediately following Iraq's rape of Kuwait has vanished, but most Americans apparently still want President Bush to have an unfettered hand in dealing with Saddam Hussein.
We know that there will be some moonless nights in November in the Persian Gulf area. And some sleepless nights in the homes of the GIs waiting to fight a war. We shall have to wait to see whether the U.S. will lash out in the darkness, believing that in four days its superior military might can rid one part of the world of a grave threat.
Let's watch carefully the moon, the surges of the seas, our horoscopes, and most of all the White House and Pentagon officials who will decide whether the leaked ''war plans'' are going to be turned into the great slaughter of the late 20th century.