The reassuring word from Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is that the United States will resort to a ground war against Iraq only "if necessary." This welcome phrase, offered repeatedly, is especially welcome from General Powell, an Army man who in the past has bridled at Air Force boasts about being able to finish off Saddam Hussein's forces all by itself. He warned in December that any war with Iraq could be messy, requiring a U.S. ground assault all the way to Baghdad.
Evidently some new thinking is taking place at the Pentagon. At their joint press conference yesterday, Secretary Cheney and General Powell asserted that the United States has achieved air superiority and is in "no hurry" to stop the pounding of Iraqi targets before turning "if necessary" to ground fighting where casualties could be heavy.
This makes profound good sense. Those voices in the Washington establishment who proclaimed so long (and, in our view, so wrongly) that economic sanctions alone could force Iraq out of Kuwait now can take cover in a new cause. In political shorthand, it would be sanctions-plus-air-power. The realistic proviso, of course, is that such a formula could work only if the United States maintains a highly creditable ground war capability -- one that requires Iraq to keep its forces in place and highly exposed at the end of long supply lines.
"Our strategy for dealing with this (Iraqi) army is very simple," General Power declared. "First, we're going to cut it off. Then we're going to kill it." The cutting-off phase is an Air Force job, a follow-up to the strategic bombing that has dominated the first days of the war. Then, and only then, comes the killing phase. "If it becomes necessary, fairly large ground forces will finish it off, if necessary," General Powell stated, using his operative caveats both at the beginning and end of his sentence.
The Pentagon chiefs described the Iraqi army as large, dug-in, ingenious and resourceful, a formidable foe that cannot be overcome quickly. But because it lacks air support, it will encounter increasing difficulty in reinforcement and resupply and, eventually, in actually trying to function. Such is the current assessment from the U.S. side.
Much could change if Saddam Hussein unleashes his chemical warfare option or pulls some other undefined "surprise" requiring a U.S. response with ground forces. But the apparent readiness of the military establishment to rely for some time on air power, especially in light of Army warnings that its forces will not be at full strength until mid- or late-February, displays real prudence. Such a policy will comfort and unite the country. Americans will know everything possible will have been done to minimize casualties if, in the end, ground forces have to go in and finish the job.