WHAT makes the Gulf crisis so terrifying is the multiplication of fuse points, the most volatile of which is the careless use of language. The wrong words can touch off a disaster of unimaginable proportions. Given the combustibility of a situation in which armed forces are precariously counterpoised, it is critically important that such elements of the crisis as are susceptible to control - language being a prime example - must not be allowed to get out of hand. A disturbing specimen of incendiary talk was the interview given to the press by Gen. Michael J. Dugan, then chief of staff of the Air Force. General Dugan revealed that US military strategy was based on a ``decapitation'' policy. In cold-turkey semantics, this meant cutting down Saddam Hussein or a first-strike or both. The administration disavowed General Dugan's statements, and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney immediately fired him; but Washington reporters agreed that the general was simply disclosing a position held by high Pentagon officials.
One can only calculate with horror the increased risk to the personal safety of President George Bush resulting from such rhetoric. Nations today come equipped with assassination strategies and tactics. In our own case, at least two instances have come to light in which the CIA has been involved in the assassination of heads of states. Other governments play the same game, working with open checkbooks and hired killers.
It was not long after the foiled attempts by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and there was serious speculation linking the two events. Despite the official repudiation of General Dugan, if Saddam Hussein is as quick-trigger vindictive as has been painted, it is not far-fetched to suppose that he will not shrink from decapitation machinery against the US.
Apart from the possible threat to the president encouraged by loose talk, there is the utter folly of a ``decapitation'' strategy on its own terms. The workability of our Gulf policy depends on our ability to maintain Arab support. The president was wise in bringing the United Nations into the picture, since it deprived Saddam of what was obviously his main strategy - making it appear that he was carrying the Arab flag against the familiar enemies, America and Israel primarily. It was also important to deprive Saddam of the argument that he was defending the Arab world against the capitalist West and its puppets in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Saddam's strategy backfired with the votes of the Security Council condemning Iraq. However, Saddam Hussein has not given up his belief that he can unite the Arab world against the Americans and their Zionist allies. It is naive to believe that just shearing off Saddam's head would accomplish anything but a powerful drive inside the Arab world to close ranks.
Similarly, it is unproductive, to say the least, for the president of the United States to trade verbal abuse with Saddam. It would be far wiser to allow the war of words to be confined within the Arab nations themselves. It might also be productive for the United States to consult more fully and frequently with the Arab opponents of Saddam about a possible path of retreat for Saddam that may be short of decapitation. Saddam has to be taken seriously about his threat to blow up the oil fields in the Persian Gulf and to let loose missiles carrying chemical and bacteriological weapons against Israel. He is prepared to exact a high price for his decapitation.
There is no question about America's superior force in any showdown against Iraq. What remains to be demonstrated is whether we have the wisdom to match our strength. We have yet to construct a firm moral base that would justify the loss of life. It may well be that, despite all wisdom and restraint, the Gulf crisis will escalate into a world conflagration. As to that, no one can say. But at least the point of no return has not yet been reached; the missiles are not flying. We ought to be devoting at least as much hard thought to bridging this crisis as we are to the dangerous nonsense of pre-emptive strikes.
If we are wise, we will keep our lips buttoned and let the UN do the talking. The initial mission of UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar to Baghdad was fruitless, but that doesn't mean that a further effort by the secretary general should not be attempted, especially if it seeks mutual withdrawal, pulling the contending parties back from the brink. It would be difficult to think of a sterner test for diplomacy; it is even more difficult to think of an alternative.