After a crisis excessively costly and prolonged, there is the possibility of combat cheap in casualties and as short as two weeks, and even the political-military war as a whole may be successful if two great temptations are firmly avoided. The first is the natural tendency of a multi-service military command to fight a multi-service war instead of allowing the entire operation to continue until the end as a pure air war with no ground combat at all. The second temptation is the equally natural tendency of diplomats to offer diplomatic solutions even when there is no diplomatic problem.
It is no secret that the ground forces now in Saudi Arabia are divided into two large groups: the U.S. Army with its armored and mechanized divisions poised to advance deep into Iraq to cut off the Iraqi forces in Kuwait, and the U.S. Marines with the British tank division deployed to fight their way north into Kuwait and also to stage amphibious landings. (The French and Arab ground forces in between are insignificant.) It was the transport and deployment of those U.S. ground forces that made the Desert Shield buildup so slow, costly and ponderous, and now it is only the offensive use of those same ground forces that could make Desert Storm a bloody, grinding combat with thousands of casualties.
The Iraqi forces in Kuwait only have enough food for a limited period. By focusing air attacks on the hundreds of trucks that must travel each day to resupply them, the Iraqis can be left with the choice of deserting south into Saudi Arabia or retreating north back into Iraq. The Marines could then have their advance -- but without any actual combat, not even so-called "mopping up" and without their much-desired amphibious operations. As for the Army, nothing would be required of it except to pack up to go home.
To rely on air power alone to force the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait would not only save thousands of possible U.S. casualties but would also avoid the greatest strategic danger of the present war: the destruction of the Iraqi army. The bombing that is now destroying Iraq's military factories as well as its nuclear, chemical, missile and biological research facilities should certainly continue. But to destroy the Iraqi army as such would leave Iran unconstrained as the strongest power in the Gulf and release the Syrians from the threat that has kept their own aggressiveness under control. Thus a U.S. ground offensive would not only be immediately costly in lives but would also be strategically counterproductive. In spite of that, Army and Marine leaders are still trying to obtain a role for themselves -- their activism is praiseworthy, but it must be firmly resisted.
The same is true of the diplomatic temptation. Already suggestions are being heard that the bombing should stop to give Saddam Hussein a chance to reconsider a withdrawal. The air war has started well, but it has only just started. To destroy Iraq's military industries and force the withdrawal from Kuwait, the bombing must continue for a minimum of seven days and nights, and probably more. To now interrupt the air campaign would allow Iraq to resupply its forces in Kuwait, so that the process of interdiction would have to start all over again. Moreover, after some days of welcome relief, Saddam Hussein would no doubt claim victory and strike postures of defiance.
As it is, if Saddam Hussein survives physically -- as he may well do -- he will survive politically, just as Nasser and Assad did after their military disasters. That need not be a bad thing: a complete collapse of Iraq and a power vacuum would be far worse.
The writer holds the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.