With fresh prospects for a United Nations weapons-inspection team entering Iraq in the next two weeks, the Bush administration's march to war with Saddam Hussein appears to have gotten significantly more complicated.
The US has hit a wall of resistance in the UN Security Council to its underlying goal of "regime change" in Iraq. And it now appears ready to back off that goal at least in its rhetoric as it works to strengthen the rules under which UN inspectors may enter Iraq.
Whether that means the path to confrontation has been seriously obstructed remains to be seen. If UN inspectors enter Iraq without tougher inspection rules, the US could declare the inspections effort a sham and proceed along a military course.
In one sense, the inspections agreement "reduces the US options for dealing with this crisis," says Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington. "What it really says is that the idea of working through the UN to seriously deal with Saddam Hussein ... is not on." If the UN goes along with inspections under rules that allow Mr. Hussein to commit "fraud," this would simply assure "that military force will be required to accomplish the goal," he says.
Yet for the moment, the emphasis appears to have shifted in the administration's negotiations both with Congress and the UN to perhaps giving peace, or at least international diplomacy and other efforts, a chance.
"All of us recognize the military option is not the first choice," President Bush said at the White House Tuesday. Returning to the theme of his Sept. 12 speech to the UN General Assembly, in which he called on the UN to enforce its own resolutions and remove the threat in Iraq, Bush said his objective was "putting some calcium" in the backbone of UN dealings with Iraq.
But Bush's push for tough new rules to govern any inspections plan in Iraq is complicated by this week's deal between Hans Blix, chief of the UN's inspection commission, and Iraqi officials. They agreed that inspectors will return to Iraqi weapons-development sites within two weeks.
Mr. Blix, a Swede who directed the International Atomic Energy Agency before taking his current post in 2000, sounded upbeat as he said in Vienna that he had found in the Iraqis "a readiness to accept inspections that did not exist before." He said "our planning remains based upon the [UN] resolutions we have now," although his team is "aware of the new resolution on the table."
But that resolution, circulated by the US this weekend, wasn't introduced at the Security Council Tuesday as earlier anticipated.
That change of plans, as well as a shifting White House tone, are at least in part attributable to the more complicated gameboard the US is now playing on.
"The agreement in Vienna makes it more difficult now for the administration to get a very hardnosed and demanding UN resolution," says Stephen Walt, an international relations expert at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "The harder we push now, the more it will look to other states like we're unwilling to take 'yes' for an answer."
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday he would be working "over the next two weeks" to secure a new UN resolution. He suggested the US would act to derail any entry of inspectors into Iraq under current UN resolutions but his timetable also suggests the difficulty the US still faces in getting the kind of resolution it wants, with strict timetables, authorization of armed UN guards with inspection teams, and unfettered access to all sites.
The principal fallout will be the complication of the road to authorization of military force in the UN.
That may mean the road ahead is murkier, since it could raise again divisions within the administration over the wisdom of seeking international cooperation in dealing with Iraq.
"The president has stated very plainly and to the world his policy for dealing with Iraq, but there are people inside his own administration who don't agree with it and who are beavering away at that policy," says Mr. Gaffney. "It wouldn't surprise me to see the disagreement resurfacing...."
Others say the agreement will raise the kind of "here we go again" response some US officials and observers like Gaffney are offering. That suggests Bush could face again, even within his team, a dove-hawk tug-of-war.
"This will encourage some in the administration and some influential commentators outside it to push for independent action," Professor Walt says, "but it would also increase the political cost of acting unilaterally."