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Hold on to victory


WHAT OUR airmen are winning in the skies over Iraq our diplomats are losing behind closed doors in Washington.

The war is going better than we dared hope. In two weeks we have gained control of the air; the exodus of Iraqi aircraft to Iran is an acknowledgment by Saddam Hussein that Iraqi airspace now belongs to the allies.

That means we are free to pound his supply lines until his hungry, thirsty troops -- who should be told by leaflet and broadcast that they have been deserted by the privileged ranks -- lose the means and will to fight.

Saddam's ace weapon, the Scud missile, was designed to bring Israel into the war and transform the invader of Kuwait into an Arab hero. It was trumped by the Patriot and by the Israelis' willingness to bide their time in retaliating.

He is reduced to stunts -- ecoterrorism against cormorants, and criminal outrages against prisoners of war -- to divert attention from the relentless damage to his war machine by 100 allied sorties an hour.

Now he is trying to goad us into a premature ground attack with his tank forays across the Saudi border. That won't work, either; as soon as his tanks come out of bunkers, they are being destroyed.

His bedrock assumption was that the U.S. would flinch in the face of horrendous casualties. That has turned out to be mistaken, because our air war strategy is winning the war at the lowest cost in lives.

I just used an unfashionable word: "win." President Bush, in his mishmash State of the Union address, preferred the more elegant verb "prevail." Fine: Let us prevail at the conference table as well as over the battlefield.

In the mists of Foggy Bottom, we have suffered this war's first defeat. In the run-up to the deadline of Jan. 15, Bush resolutely resisted any fraying of the clear requirement that Saddam get out of Kuwait, totally and without conditions.

This was despite craven, last-minute concessions offered Iraq by lTC both the president of France and the secretary general of the U.N. that a mere promise to leave -- not an actual withdrawal -- would suffice.

But here is that same concession in a joint statement issued two days ago by Secretary of State James Baker and the Soviet foreign minister, Aleksandr Bessmertnykh:

"The ministers continue to believe that a cessation of hostilities would be possible if Iraq would make an unequivocal commitment to withdraw from Kuwait."

First, catch that "continue to"; Baker admits he always favored the merely-a-promise-will-do concession. Then see how the word "promise" or "pledge" is made to look tough: it becomes "an unequivocal commitment" backed by "immediate, concrete steps."

Baloney: It says "just say you'll get out, send home a regiment, and we'll call it quits." We have now adopted the scorned French position.

Ah, but what about the firm Bush stand against "linkage"? We applauded the steadfast refusal to allow Saddam to tie his withdrawal from Kuwait to an Israeli withdrawal from land claimed by the PLO -- to save face by pretending Iraq's stickup and rape of Kuwait was done for a less ignoble cause.

But here, in the surrender on State's seventh floor, is the linkage Saddam sought: "In addition, dealing with the causes of instability and the sources of conflict, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, will be especially important."

This, in the same short statement pleading for a mere promise to withdraw, plainly links Kuwait to the West Bank. What links is linkage.

This Baker-Bessmertnykh abomination is an invitation to the butcher of Baghdad to turn certain defeat into a kind of victory. Although the president's press secretary said the written statement was "misinterpreted" and reflected "no change in policy," old hands know that all policy change is heralded by protestations of no change.

Bush said later he had "no differences" with Baker.

Let's not kid ourselves: our goal is not only to remove Saddam from Kuwait but to remove Saddam from power -- period. No comebacks with stashed-away aircraft or hidden nuclear potential.

If diplomatic niceties, superpower relations or the sensitivities of free-riding members of the coalition prevent us from blurting out this truth, the least our secretary of state can do is bite his tongue and refrain from frittering away the goal our forces are fighting to win.

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