As the US begins to push for United Nations approval of a tough new draft resolution for dealing with Iraq, it's getting a cold shoulder from three key nations France, China, and Russia.
Whether these three veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council can ultimately be persuaded to back the US plan which requires Iraq to quickly and fully reveal its weapons inventory is the pressing question of the moment.
All three powerful nations clearly face a dilemma. If they balk, the US may proceed alone on Iraq and perhaps on other issues in the future. Yet all three especially Russia and China are loath to risk souring their relations with the world's only superpower by rejecting the plan. They're fully aware of Washington's "with-us-or-with-the-terrorists" worldview. And they've seen the high diplomatic price Germany has paid for not toeing the Bush line on Iraq.
The US backed by Britain is expected to formally introduce the plan at the UN this week. And there's been a flurry of shuttle diplomacy between Washington, Paris, Beijing, and Moscow. Yet as US Secretary of State Colin Powell put it last week, "We're a long way from getting agreement."
The plan reportedly calls for Iraq to reveal all its materials relating to weapons of mass destruction and give unfettered access to all key buildings, including presidential palaces. If Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fails to comply, "all necessary means" may be used against him.
This weekend, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan rejected the plan, saying, "Our position on the inspectors has been decided, and any additional procedure is meant to hurt Iraq and is unacceptable."
Some analysts suspect Iraq's rejection may be exactly what some administration members wanted. The plan was written, the analysts suggest, by hawks on the Bush team as a no-lose proposition: If Iraq and the UN balk, that opens the way to US military action. If they happen to back the plan, it puts Iraq in a UN-approved straitjacket.
Meanwhile, France is still pushing a plan that would set up a two-step process for approaching Iraq. It would require the UN Security Council to authorize war with a separate resolution but only if Iraq obstructs the return of UN weapons inspectors.
But the US administration continues to press its case. Over the past few days, the US draft was presented by Secretary Powell to Chinese officials and taken by a high-level State Department official to Paris and Moscow.
Experts say both Russia and China will be especially anxious not to veto the resolution in the Security Council for three basic reasons: First, leaders in both countries believe their top-priority domestic preoccupations require strengthening rather than straining ties with the US.
Second, neither nation wants to isolate itself from the international community over Iraq. So, while expressing concerns in concert with other "Perm 5" Security Council members is possible, neither would want to stand alone.
Third, both countries are keenly interested in keeping the globe's only superpower working within the international political system and controlling its temptations to operate alone.
"The Chinese realize the US is the sole superpower, and that's a change," says Richard Bush, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"Not so long ago they were still hoping for a multipolar system, but they now realize that's a ways off." Adds Paul Saunders, a Russia expert at the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank, "The Russians, and the Chinese for that matter, realize the only framework where they have any leverage over American decisions is the UN. They have no interest in pushing the US outside it."
Driving both countries' international actions are daunting economic and social concerns.
"If you look carefully at Moscow and Beijing, you realize they're coming from largely the same perspective," says Melvin Goodman, a Russia specialist at the National War College in Washington. "The Chinese have no illusions about the Bush administration," and the Russians have felt the glow come off their relations with the US since the high-water mark of Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch last year.
But he says both countries believe they have to play their relationship with the US to suit domestic challenges. While President Putin may not be happy about US decisions on arms control or Bush's new National Security Strategy, "his target right now is a greater American involvement in the Russian economy."
China remains cautious toward the US for reasons ranging from Taiwan to America's pro-democracy rhetoric. But by and large, the Chinese leadership believes its standing with Washington has improved over the past year. Part of the reason, experts say, is Sept. 11.
In its early days, the Bush administration "called China a rising military power to be watched, and there was talk that suggested the US would move more into the Asian theater, and that made China nervous," says David Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. "But after Sept. 11 the focus of American security has shifted away from the Chinese to terrorism, and that is undeniably good from their point of view."
Mr. Lampton, who just returned from a trip to China during which he interviewed a range of Chinese leaders and intellectuals, says the dominant view is that the Chinese regime now has a window of time for focusing on domestic issues. And he says that with Chinese President Jiang Zemin scheduled to join Bush at Crawford in late October, it is most unlikely the Chinese would do anything to sour the visit.
"They've seen Putin and [Saudi leader] Prince Abdullah invited to Crawford, and they see this as a visible sign they have a special relationship with the US," Lampton says. "They value that."
The Chinese recently published regulations for the export of certain missile and weapons materials, something the US had been pressing them to do.
And in a move that surely pleased the Chinese, the Bush administration last week reversed course and announced it would send a high-level diplomat this week to North Korea which, like Iraq, is a member of Bush's "axis of evil" for talks.
The Brookings Institution's Mr. Bush notes that the administration's national security document also contains less-confrontational language on Taiwan.
Yet if USChina relations have improved, Russia specialists say the opposite is true with Russia. In part that's because the "glow" of Putin's Crawford visit was bound to dull. But Russia's desire to treat rebellious Chechens as their own version of the Taliban, its economic ties to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, and a creeping Russian sense that the Americans have offered an empty friendship, have taken their toll.
Still, an overriding desire to not run afoul of the US may stop either country from stamping a veto on an Iraq resolution, these experts believe. "If it's a matter of joining others to influence the Americans that's one thing," says Lampton. "But the Chinese will not want to stand alone."