Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, on her tour of the Gulf, said the time for diplomacy was fast expiring. Defense Secretary William Cohen said the opening was narrow, but the Clinton administration still hoped to find a diplomatic solution.
Ms. Albright said a military strike would seek to coerce Iraq into accepting unfettered weapons inspection. Mr. Cohen said one should not have "unreasonable expectations" about what air strikes would accomplish. In the past, Albright has talked of eliminating Saddam Hussein as a policy objective. Cohen said that is not the goal.
This is not the first time the diplomats have leaned toward military action while the military leaned toward diplomacy. But, given the delicacy of the situation, with Russia trying to weaken international resolve by pulling yet another Iraqi compromise offer out of its shapka, it would be well for the administration to avoid differing nuances of expression that contribute to the confusion, especially in Baghdad.
It is expected that, at a certain unspecified point within the next few weeks, President Clinton will make his decision. If, as anticipated, it is to launch bombing and missile strikes, that will be expressed in an "execute order" to the missile-carrying Navy ships and the 200 American warplanes on station in the Gulf.
The attack should follow within 24 hours, perhaps after one final ultimatum to Iraq. The targeting appears to be limited in scope to such biological and chemical weapons sites as can be located, air defenses, command and control facilities, and certain other military installations.
In Davos, Switzerland, where world leaders were meeting in an economic forum, New York Times columnist William Safire heard of a three-phase plan, providing pauses for possible negotiation. There is no indication of any plan to cripple Iraq economically, for example by attacking oil fields or infrastructure.
Cohen says the idea is not to devastate Iraq. And if he is right in saying weapons of mass destruction cannot be eliminated by air strikes alone, that means that, after sustained bombing, Saddam might still possess biological weapons and the means to launch retaliatory germ warfare attacks in the region.
The Clinton administration is racking its brain about what would follow a sustained aerial campaign. Congress probably would not support the sending of ground troops even if the administration were to propose it - which is doubtful. Meanwhile, it would be useful if the departments of State and Defense, and the National Security Council, could speak with one voice, or even, in a delicate situation, with no voice at all.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.