WASHINGTON — THE ALLIES have won the first phase of the war with air power, and are talking about how to win the land war against Iraq's half a million men in Kuwait.
Fortunately, this time they haven't given themselves an ultimatum to start the second phase by a date certain, but officials talk about the desert battle as if it were inevitable.
This reminds me of former Undersecretary of State George Ball's story about how the U.S. got into the Vietnam mess: A man took his little boy to the zoo and, pointing to a long-legged creature, said, "That is a giraffe." And the boy said, "Why?" That, Ball said, explained our rush to war. "We just didn't ask the giraffe question: why, why, why?"
President Bush did ask "why?" and answered that the U.S. had intervened in the gulf to defend U.N. principles and resolutions. He committed himself, with Congress' support, to get the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait and restore Kuwait's government. But the U.N. resolutions did not tell him he had to fight a land war; they authorized him to use what force he deemed necessary, and left it to the other U.N. members to do likewise.
Since then, Bush has emphasized this is not a war between the U.S. and Iraq but a joint U.N. operation that entails the least possible loss of life.
He has warned against overconfidence, and has expanded his authority to call up more reserves to back the 460,000 Americans preparing for the decisive battle. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein mocks the almost unopposed raids over Baghdad, but he got his wife out of town, banished all U.S. TV networks except CNN in order to limit pictures of damage, and apparently waits confidently for more than a million men to clash in the desert.
This is what raises the giraffe question. Nobody, to my knowledge, has explained why we should accommodate him by fighting on the battlefield of his choice under conditions familiar to his troops and unfamiliar to ours. Nor has the administration explained why it refuses to aim its "smart bombs" at Saddam himself while old generals and warrior journalists recommend land battles for young men to fight.
The answer seems to be that the weapons can destroy nuclear laboratories and chemical and biological factories, but cannot be as effective against Iraq's underground armies. They can "soften them up" from the air, it is said, but the Army and Marines must "root them out." This is like benching Joe Montana and grinding out yardage through the line.
No doubt Saddam's armies are well concealed, but they have to eat and get other supplies in trucks that are not invisible to bombers, even at night. Also, some of our commanders are convinced that continued bombing at present levels can destroy Saddam's communication system and cut him off from control -- maybe not in a few days but within a few weeks.
At least some observers ask, why hurry to the land war before giving the bombers time to cut them off from their essential supplies? If the Air Force and the Navy can drop bombs down chimneys, they should be able to hit supply trucks down to the last sandwich.
The Army and Marines don't like Dwight Eisenhower's "courage of patience," for they want to prove they're as efficient as the Air Force and Navy. But Bush has different problems. He has had two wars in his first two years in office, and his popularity is high -- mainly because casualties have been so low. A bloody land war is not likely to increase his standing in the polls or usher in his new world order, which is more likely to rely on what happens in the Soviet Union than in Iraq and Kuwait.
His best chance of reducing Saddam's authority in the Arab world is not to slaughter his armies in battle but force them to surrender. It is not in America's interest to create a military wasteland in Iraq and leave Iraq to Iran's and Syria's tender mercies. So at least a prolonged effort to destroy Saddam's communications and starve his armies into submission is necessary before any land struggle begins.
Meanwhile, the bad news has to reach Iraqi soldiers in the desert. For if they have nothing to eat but leaflets, some might prefer to leave Kuwait and go home -- before they have no home to go home to.
James Reston is a senior columnist for the New York Times.