Let's Give Air Power a Full Chance

ONCE there was Walter Lippmann to turn to for words of wisdom on major decisions facing the nation. I see no Lippmanns now - although there is a plethora of generals, admirals and former foreign-affairs officials on TV, their talking heads alternating between Scud assaults, Pentagon briefings, and other war coverage. Most of them I've never seen before. Some are more convincing than others. But I wish Lippmann was around to tell the president what he is doing right or wrong - and what he should do.

And I wish there was a wise person of Lippmann's stature on the sidelines. Perhaps there is. The New York Times's James Reston, who comes out of retirement with an occasional column, is one such man. He's recently written a compelling piece in which he argues that the US should not hurry into a costly air war. Just keep bombing, he urges, and seek to force Saddam to surrender with air power - even if it takes weeks.

Perhaps by the time this column appears the US will have launched a land war. Informants are telling us that this phase is scheduled and imminent. In a war where events race across the scene, a columnist must take risks that his words may be overtaken. Yet I take comfort in knowing that the latest information from Defense Secretary Cheney is that the bombing alone ``may continue into February.''

Perhaps the president has planned all along to hold off on a ground offensive for weeks and prevent a bloody war by relying fully on the Air Force. Part of such a plan would include giving the impression that ground forces could be unleashed at any moment.

There is an opposing view, particularly in the Army and Marines, that the Air Force itself can never ``get the job done'' - that the ground forces must come in and mop up. Writes Reston: ``The Army and Marines don't like Dwight Eisenhower's `courage of patience,' for they want to prove they are as efficient as the Air Force and Navy.''

Reston points out that the UN resolutions did not tell Bush to fight a land war: ``They authorized him to use what force he deemed necessary, and left it to the other members to do likewise.''

Reston asks: Why hurry to the land war before giving the bombers time to cut off the Iraqi ground forces from 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.''

``Bush's best chance of reducing Saddam's authority in the Arab world,'' Reston writes, ``is not to slaughter Saddam's 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.'' Why should the US accommodate Saddam, he asks, ``by fighting on the battlefield of his choice under conditions familiar to his troops and unfamiliar to ours?''

``Nor had the administration explained,'' Reston goes on, ``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.''

I feel obligated, however, to disclose my own possible prejudice. I served for five years in the Army Air Forces during World War II and have kept up a commission. I am aware that studies have shown that the damage done by US air in Europe, although extensive, was not as destructive as early estimates indicated. It certainly took the ground forces to move in and wrap up the victory.

In the Asian theater the valiant flyers certainly played a highly significant role in the victory. Yet we remember well the terribly bloody ground battles that were necessary for the Allies to move forward. On the other hand, there are military experts who argue that the atom bomb need not have been dropped - that conventional bombing was already hammering the Japanese into submission.

So why not give air power a full chance? Reston ends by pointing out what starving out the Iraqi troops might accomplish: ``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.''

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