Speculation on how and when the United States will launch a land war against Iraq has now reached a fevered pitch reminiscent of the tense run-up to President Bush's Jan. 17 decision to unleash the air war. What advice Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell bring back from the war zone is bound to be shrouded in contradiction, disinformation and conjecture. And rightly so. This background noise not only helps to preserve the element of military surprise but is part of the psychological warfare directed at Saddam Hussein and those Iraqis with a potential to remove him from power.
Mr. Cheney has deliberately added complexity to the situation by suggesting that the choice might not be between continued aerial bombardment and a massive land assault, but something in between. Speaking publicly for the first time about the possibility of a limited land war, he said, "You add the amphibious element or the ground forces in the fashion that forces [the enemy] to move out of his prepared positions [and] that makes him vulnerable again to the Air Force."
Such comments could be camouflage for a huge flanking maneuver to "cut off and kill" (General Powell's words) the Iraqi army. But there are logistical as well as political arguments for first probing in force rather than attacking in force.
It is classic military doctrine to feel out an enemy's weak points and responses, and perhaps lure him into battle positions not of his own choosing. Iraq tried that very thing with its vainglorious attack on Khafji. If the allies put some still-secret variation of this tactic into play, it would allow the air war to continue relentlessly, give the Third Armored Corps more time to marry up with its tanks en route from Europe and perhaps flush hunkered-down Iraqi units into the open.
So far the war has produced images of a U.S. Air Force that controls the skies and an enemy well dug-in, equipped with chemical or biological weaponry and eager to inflict heavy casualties. As a consequence, support for the air war and fear of a ground war have grown in this country.
Yet other factors affect Commander-in-Chief Bush's ultimate decision. Powerful arguments can be made that an all-out campaign, despite predictable casualties, is preferable if the war is to be brought to a quick end. There is a concern that Saddam Hussein may turn military defeat into political triumph by depicting the pounding his nation is taking not as just retribution for the rape of Kuwait but as a Judeo-Christian assault on Islam.
Although in the past we have urged continued reliance on air power, we find Mr. Cheney's limited-ground-war scenario quite persuasive. But other factors that top American officials do not -- choose to disclose may argue otherwise. As President Bush and his advisers make their life-and-death decisions, we are left to hope they make the right ones.