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The Iraq danger is growing more remote from Israel's citizens by the minute, because they are going to benefit in every possible way, according to the evaluation of the General Staff: The missiles and air force of the Iraqis will be the first prey of the Americans, and Saddam Hussein himself, if he survives the initial strike from the outside and the assassination plots inside, will be strengthened in his belief that his final hour has not yet arrived, the hour of releasing all the demons toward Israel. Possible missile bases in western Iraq have already been effectively given up to the American invader, with the collapse of the defensive lines there, in the east and to the north of the envelope around Baghdad.

The arrival in Washington of the commander of the American campaign, General Tommy Franks, for two days of discussions with President George Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, is the sign that the final polishing of the drafts of the orders and the authorization of the plans is under way.

The Turkish entanglement holds out the possibility of postponement, but contrary to the usual logic, if the Turks surprise everyone and stick to their refusal to allow 62,000 U.S. troops to deploy on their soil, the other operational plan will be put into action immediately. It will also involve a northern front, but without Turkey - indeed, it is precisely Turkish consent (which the Americans worked hard to obtain, with the help of top Turkish officers, who threatened to impose a state of emergency if approval was not forthcoming) that could cause a delay of the attack.

Be that as it may, Pentagon officials have informed the correspondents accompanying the American forces that they are moving into a stage in which "the blackout blinds will cover the windows of time": From time to time, in this land division or on that destroyer, the connection between the correspondents and the systems will be broken off, just as can be expected when the war itself starts. The purpose is to prevent the Iraqis, who are looking for signs attesting to the onset of the attack (including media reports on the silence of the correspondents), from distinguishing between exercise and reality.

Ahead of the lethal encounter with the Iraqi population, which is liable to be hurt by American fire, and no less by mass murders perpetrated at Saddam's order - so that the images of the atrocities will be broadcast around the world, bringing pressure to bear on Washington to call off the attack - the U.S. armed forces are also readying for legal defense. Not passive defense but a preemptive strike.

The method has been borrowed from the white-collar world, where prior consultation with an attorney who confirms that the planned move is legal, is like an injection that immunizes the client against possible charges of criminal intent; and without proof of such intent, even if suspicion that a crime has been committed is high, it is difficult to get a conviction in court. In the khaki-collared world, over which looms the shadow of the war crimes court in The Hague, soldiers and officers who are liable to find themselves involved in situations in which civilians are killed would do well to sever the connection between their action, whether it is malicious or negligent, and the harsh results. If they can prove the result was caused despite their action and not because of it, and that their action was necessary and justified, they will not have to fear being hauled before a court as war criminals. That, after all, is the difference between "tax planning," which makes use of the breaches left by the language of the law, and tax evasion, which brings fines and imprisonment.

Shells as statistical weapons

The fear of The Hague hangs over pilots and infantrymen, and perhaps also a bit over the navy, whose submarines and other vessels will hurl long-range missiles. Most of all, though, it is probably the artillerymen who are most fearful, because a shell is a statistical weapon that does not home in as accurately as a warhead fired from the air, and the scattering of its shrapnel endangers people nearby, too. The accidental killing of dozens of refugees in Kafr Qana during Israel's Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, in the course of a mission to cover the rescue of an Israel Defense Forces ground team in southern Lebanon, illustrated the human and systemic consequences of artillery shelling. Maybe that's why it was Field Artillery, the bimonthly of the Artillery Corps in the U.S. Army, that declared the development of the legal flak jacket, which offers protection for those engaged in shelling populated areas.

The father of the legal defensive maneuver is General Burwell B. Bell III, commander of U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army, Heidelberg, Germany, for the past quarter of a year. In the 1991 war, Bell, then a colonel, was the bureau chief of the arena commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf. The formulation that parallels the "rules of engagement" in the IDF was supplied by Rumsfeld. At the bottom of the ladder is General Bell's target audience - the commanders of the corps, divisions and brigades - and on the slopes below them, the riflemen and the squad and platoon commanders, brash, uptight lieutenants and hotheaded corporals with machine guns, who will ultimately decide whether some dusty town on the outskirts of Baghdad will enter the hall of shame of war massacres alongside Lidice and Mai Lai, Kafr Qassem and Sabra and Chatila.

It is at this lower level that the instruction, discipline and close oversight of the direct commanders are aimed. They are taught "cases and reactions," such as the "tactical decision game" that appeared in the monthly of the Marine Corps last year - between the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq - which focused on the eternal question of when it is permissible to kill prisoners. The example dealt with a Marines company that attacked the camp of a terrorist organization: occasional exchanges of fire, here and there hands raised to surrender. But then reports arrive about some terrorists faking surrender and, as the Americans approached, they pulled out a concealed weapon, or charged ahead, an explosive belt strapped to their body, and cut down the Marines who were about to take them into captivity. If so, the junior officers wonder, is it right to risk our men or would it be the right thing to treat the surrendering enemy according to the rule, suspect him and decapitate him (the answer is that this is forbidden).

For more senior officers, Bell and three of his aides, artillerymen (including the head of the military aid mission to Egypt) and a military advocate, supplied a recipe for proof of innocence: a form to be filled out in the midst of the fighting that will reflect the judgment of the commander ahead of his decision to attack a target containing many civilians. A military advocate will take part in choosing the targets and the type of munitions to be used, the commanding officer will fill out 17 clauses, ranging from "military necessity - what is being fired at and why," the precise coordinates of the target and its character (nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, Scuds, command and control, armor) - to an estimate of casualties (Americans and Iraqis) and the continuing danger to the forces in the absence of a response. Afterward the prosecutors in The Hague as well as the demonstrators outside the White House or opposite the gates of Fort Hood will have to admit the reasonableness of the commanders' actions and their strict adherence to the rules of war.

Powell's shelved rules

Underlying the dilemmas felt at all levels is the view that this is a war of a different type. One of the hundreds of examples cited by the U.S. Army concerns mines and explosive devices. In preparation for dealing with the Soviet army in Europe, both sides knew that the doctrine of war assigns a certain role to mines, namely to slow the advance of the attacker or to channel his forces into killing zones. Terrorist and guerrilla organizations plant mines or explosive devices to kill the assailants, or civilians, as a goal in itself.

The most striking proof that the Americans are cognizant of the difference between the Afghanistan campaign of 2001 and the Iraqi campaign of 2003, and the world wars, the Vietnam War and even the Gulf War of 1991 - which the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff at the time, Colin Powell, conducted with constant fear of a new Vietnam - is the shelving of the Powell rules for an American entry into war. This is happening at a time when Powell is again by the helm, albeit slightly to the left of the captain.

At the time of the American entanglement in Lebanon, after Sabra and Chatila, which ended quickly with a frightened evacuation under fire, Powell was the military secretary of the secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger. With mutual inspiration, Weinberger in the 1980s and Powell in the 1990s formulated rules of engagement for America, essential checks ahead of a war. This is an obstacle race, and victory entails overcoming every obstacle: jeopardizing the (American or allied) national interest, investing all the resources required to win, well-defined political and military goals, constant examination of the justification and gradualism of the use of force, near certainty of major support from Congress and the public, and war only as a last resort.

This approach holds that there is no "half-war": Either you go in with full force and with clear authorization from the broad society and the leadership in Washington, or you don't go in at all, lest the politicians and the opinion-molders change their minds because the campaign is protracted, and abandon the troops in the Arabian deserts, as in the jungles of Vietnam.

In Lebanon, Weinberger agreed to lose and get out. In 1991, Powell wanted to win in Iraq and get out. In 1993, Rumsfeld is ready to win in Iraq and stay, until the completion of the military achievement and its exploitation to achieve the political goal. Powell was accused by the armed forces of rushing to recommend a cease-fire before the ground forces were able to get to the Baghdad-Basra and Basra-Kuwait highways, and before they had completed the encirclement of the divisions of the Republican Guard. (In 1982, the fomenters of the war in Lebanon leveled similar criticism at Menachem Einan's division for failing to reach the Beirut-Damascus highway before the cease-fire took effect.)

Risks of omission

In his two years at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld, like Weinberger and Powell, also formulated rules of engagement. He, too, begins by asking whether the proposed action is truly necessary; putting American lives at risk means that the operation must be consistent with the national interest, because a very good reason is needed for killing, whether the casualties are Americans or others; but the balance is of the risks of omission, not only of commission.

The next question is whether the military mission is achievable at an acceptable risk, what the achievement being sought is, what the measure of success is - not just a "change of the situation" but its betterment. The goals must be manifest, judicious and well-understood, and the chain of command must be clear and simple: from the president and the secretary of defense, who consult the chairman of the joint chiefs, to the arena commander and from him to the commander of the forces in the field. The idea is unity of command, not decisions by committee.

It is wrong to overdo it in persuading allies to join the campaign at the expense of thinning out the goals or disrupting the chain of command - that is a lesson from NATO's war in Kosovo, when bombing targets needed the authorization of 19 governments, in a process that sometimes lasted two weeks. In this bizarre corporation, the Americans pay the partners for their agreement to join; an anchor - political authorization or a military base - could turn out to be a millstone.

In Rumsfeld's view, if the goal is meritorious, if it justifies risking lives, the leadership must not recoil in the face of initial laxness of public support; the American leadership must invest political capital in maintaining the war effort as long as it lasts, explain in advance that there are likely to be casualties and avoid the illusion of an inexpensive, clean war. If in the president's judgment diplomacy has failed, it is necessary to act aggressively and quickly in order to achieve a crushing victory, without an arbitrary timetable that is an incentive for the rival to hold on until the timetable runs out and without acting foolishly, as Bill Clinton did in Kosovo by imposing declared self-restraints ("No ground forces will be used, no bombing will be permitted below 20,000 feet, no environmental damage will be caused, no bombing during Ramadan").

The gap between Powell and Rumsfeld was closed in the past month. Weinberger, the greatest of the skeptics, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that, having listened to Powell's statement to the UN Security Council, he wonders why the invasion of Iraq is being delayed. The alternatives - "containing" and deterring Saddam Hussein - have failed. The smoking gun that the UN detectives are looking for is not going to be found, because its barrel will smoke only after it is fired, not while it is hidden. It is essential to remove Saddam, not only to disarm him, Weinberger sums up in the spirit of Bush and Rumsfeld, and war is indeed only a last resort, but there is no other.