After a summer in which the White House appeared to be marching alone toward an invasion of Iraq, the administration is beginning to make its case systematically to the American public, Congress, and the world.
The communications offensive may face its most critical test this week as President Bush addresses first the nation on the anniversary of Sept. 11 on Wednesday and then the United Nations on Thursday. Both will be key moments for his newfound campaign to build support for dispossessing Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and of Saddam Hussein.
By stepping up its PR campaign, the administration is becoming a participant in a rare phenomenon in history: in effect, a global town meeting over one nation's war planning. In the past, such debates often revolved around whether the US should get involved in a conflict already under way. This time it's over one nation's plans to launch a preventive strike against another.
Yet some experts say if there's a lesson that history provides on the best way to go into a war any kind of war it's that enlisting the support of the American people, and increasingly the world, matters. Bush is "doing the necessary thing, because politically, how can you survive if you run against public opinion?" says Robert Dallek, a presidential historian at Boston University. Nonetheless, "He really has to get the international community on board first, and that's a very difficult sell."
Indeed, the American public may need less convincing than Washington's overseas allies and doubters on Capitol Hill. Preliminary results of a Monitor/TIPP poll, concluded Saturday, indicate that the public at least shares the president's views on the urgency and seriousness of the Iraqi threat.
Some 73 percent of those polled said it was either "somewhat" or "very important" for the US to take military action within the next six months to remove Mr. Hussein from power. Even if a new round of UN inspections begins, 68 percent of Americans believe regime change in Iraq would still be necessary, the poll found.
"The public is already with the president," says Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence/TIPP, which conducted the survey. "But they still want the Bush administration to go through the motions ... of getting approval from Congress and support from the UN Security Council and our allies."
Even just trying to be consultative can be helpful to a president. It is part of the process of "making a case" that presidents such as Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam) and Harry Truman (Korea) didn't do, historians say.
For now, British Prime Minister Tony Blair appears to be the only foreign leader backing Bush in his desire to remove Hussein from power. Mr. Blair said at Camp David Saturday that the Iraqi threat is "real" and a "policy of inaction" is irresponsible.
Yet he is believed to be counseling the president about the importance of going through the UN to garner international support. Whether Bush will push for one last attempt at UN-sponsored weapons inspections in Iraq, or, like his father, seek a UN Security Council resolution for military action, remains unclear.
A UN resolution would be a tall order. The Russians say an unprovoked attack on Iraq would violate international law. The Chinese contend that American use of force would destabilize the region. Both countries have veto power on the UN Security Council.
In making his case here and abroad, analysts say, the president must answer a multitude of questions: What proof is there of Iraq's intent to use its weapons of mass destruction, and what weapons does it have? What happens after Saddam Hussein is removed? Why the need to take care of it now?
The administration is beginning to answer some of the questions, though often in generalities. On Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Fox News, "We have facts, not speculation" that Hussein has chemical and biological weapons, and is working to get nuclear armaments. He said Iraq presents a danger to the US "right now."
Not surprisingly, the administration is saying little about the potential loss of life, or economic cost, of carrying out an attack. Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday, said he didn't think military intervention would be "that tough a fight." But he did acknowledge that "we clearly would have to stay for a long time...It would be very costly."
Some believe the administration is going to have to be more forthcoming. "It requires an odd combination of candor, honesty, ability to present the evidence not just hyperbole and frankly the president hasn't done that good a job," says retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who wrote a history of the Gulf War.
Still, for all the fuss about convincing the world, Bush may have already made up his mind. As one government official, who requested anonymity, puts it: The debate is over. It is simply a matter of Bush touching all the bases.
Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.