The Air Force's top general told the public little it didn't already know when he said air strikes, including those targeted at Saddam Hussein, are the most effective way to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

After all, the need for the U.S. to rely on air power rather than ground forces in that part of the world is standard military doctrine. Likewise, the potential vulnerability of Saddam Hussein can hardly come as a shock to anyone who remembers that the 1986 U.S. raid on Libya singled out the headquarters and residence of Moamar Gadhafi for special attention.Even so, Air Force Chief of Staff Michael J. Dugan still deserved the swift and sharp rebuke he received by being fired for publicly discussing possible military tactics against Iraq.

A public discussion of military contingency plans can make life easier for Iraq and more risky for the American troops trying to defend Saudi Arabia. Unwisely, Dugan's remarks went beyond broad principles and included the disclosure that Israel has provided missiles that might be used against Iraq.

Moreover, by rattling the saber, Dugan made it harder for the White House to resolve the Iraqi crisis through diplomacy. President Bush has taken pains to minimize talk of military action against Iraq and any attempt on the life of Saddam Hussein. That's why only a few top officials have been designated to discuss military policy on Iraq. Dugan was not one of them. Indeed, Dugan was not involved in making that policy.

Though Dugan showed poor judgment in making his remarks, the White House will still pay a price for firing him. To the extent that Dugan's fate stifles public discussion of U.S. policy toward Iraq, the Oval Office could cut itself off from some potentially valuable ideas and insights.

But the fact remains that when the United States is on the brink of war, Washington can't be as open and frank as it otherwise might be. Moreover, the firing of Dugan provides a pointed reminder that, in contrast to many other countries, in the United States it's the civilian authority that is in charge of the military rather than the other way around.