WASHINGTON — Washington. IN THE PERSIAN Gulf confrontation, U.S. military officers are enforcing press ''guidelines'' to limit coverage and censor reports more closely than in any modern American war. Their ostensible reason is to protect plans and options when fighting starts.
Simultaneously, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee in Washington issues a 26-page ''white paper'' outlining U.S. military options in substantial detail. If that document were classified rather than published, any potential enemy would pay a spy millions to steal a copy.
The lag time between Saddam Hussein's provocation and possible combat in the Middle East crisis produces such contradictions. These five months have given U.S. military men time to make up rules that virtually assure negative coverage by their heavy-handed efforts to prevent it. And they have given politicians time to agonize publicly, to the great satisfaction of the enemy.
Rep. Les Aspin's ''military-option white paper'' lays out the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, explores various scenarios and concludes that ''the prospects for a rapid victory with light to moderate casualties, perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 including 500 to 1,000 fatalities, are high.'' Therefore, says the chairman, he will vote to authorize President Bush to use force to liberate Kuwait.
It is easy to call his conclusion cold and heartless, and many Americans have. But no one can say it is an unconsidered, knee-jerk reaction.
Mr. Aspin maintains that the congressional vote on authorizing force is more important than whatever public-opinion polls say on the matter, but that creates no strain since it will accurately reflect what the people think.
A moment later, he notes that his Wisconsin district is ''dovish,'' in contrast to his own stand on this and earlier issues of war and peace. Apparently he believes his own informed opinion will persuade his trusting constituents, or that he is politically strong enough to ignore what they think.
If all those who voted for him had listened to the experts who testified at his committee's hearings, they might be more skeptical. One colonel estimated that an offensive to envelop Iraqi positions in Kuwait would last about 33 days, while one that bulled through Iraqi defenses there would take just 15 days -- ''albeit with higher casualties.''
This was the same colonel who said a ''bloodless'' victory through air power would cost only 1,800 casualties, including 300 dead; a ''rapid'' combined air-land envelopment would cost 9,000, including 1,500 dead, and a ''bloody'' victory through head-on assault would cost 18,000, including 3,000 dead.
The colonel's supporters said his guesses should be accepted because he had been ''extremely accurate'' in predicting U.S. losses in Operation Just Cause. That, of course, was the Panama invasion, which was a kindergarten dispute compared to what is contemplated in the Gulf.
Mr. Aspin, as a true moderate, picked the middle scenario as his own, but he trimmed its casualty estimate to about half what the colonel predicted. He did, however, have the grace to include in his paper this sentence: ''Even those who suspected that casualty rates might be much higher did not question the prospects for eventual success.''
While his seeming lowball on casualties in the ''rapid victory'' version makes combat sound more politically acceptable, admitting that eventual success could be much more costly leaves the way open to casualty lists longer than those seen in the third, ''bloody victory'' scenario.
The truth is, nobody knows how many Americans, or Iraqis, would die. That depends on how each side escalates in response to the other. Asked whether his version assumed Mr. Hussein would absorb air assault without attacking on the ground, Mr. Aspin said the generals actually hope that air raids will ''smoke out'' the Iraqis from their prepared defenses into the open. What then?
One thing Mr. Aspin knew before issuing his paper, and all congressmen knew before beginning their formal debate yesterday, was that public support for military action plummets as casualty estimates rise. The day before the U.S.-Iraqi talks in Geneva ended in standoff, a Washington Post-ABC poll showed 63 percent approving war to push Iraq out of Kuwait. But only 44 percent approved if it meant 1,000 U.S. dead, and only 35 percent if it meant 10,000.
Fortunately for the president, the resolution of support before Congress today will not mention casualties, so it is likely to pass. But no congressman can say his vote reflects public opinion unless he truly thinks this war will be fought without bloodshed.