For a month, the debate over renewing UN weapons inspections of Iraq has essentially been between a US comply-or-else ultimatum and a French go-slow approach aimed at denying Washington a "green light" to use force.
No country has put forth "Plan C," a credible third option.
As other UN member states this week began weighing in, it's becoming clearer why not: The French seem to have consensus support.
"It would be inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the United Nations Charter if the Security Council were to authorize the use of military force against Iraq at a time when Iraq has indicated its willingness to abide by the Security Council's resolution," South Africa's UN ambassador Dumisani Kumalo said Wednesday, at the outset of a two-day open forum in which non-Council member states spoke to the body about how to handle Iraq.
But, critics say, that depends what your definition of "abide" is. After a four-year hiatus, Iraq agreed on Sept. 16 to the "unconditional return" of weapons inspectors (though not to inspections themselves). But within days, Baghdad was erecting barriers. The latest, last week, were two letters sent to chief weapons inspector Hans Blix declining to confirm plans for returning inspectors that he reportedly made with Iraqi representatives earlier this month in Vienna.
Furor over the letters reportedly "irritated" both France and Russia Iraq's strongest backers among the P5, the permanent, veto-bearing members of the Security Council and seemed to strengthen the US hand for a tougher stance. But the French have continued to press for a two-stage resolution. The first phase would outline the new inspections regime; the second, if the Iraqis were deemed uncooperative, would consider the use of force.
Washington's supporters say that approach would drain new-found momentum to disarm Iraq. And if the past is any indicator, critics say, if Iraq obstructs inspectors, Baghdad's advocates on the Council will refuse to recognize its actions as non-compliance and a trigger for the authorization of force.
With that in mind, US and British diplomats appear to be digging in their heels for a single resolution, one that threatens "serious consequences" if inspectors aren't granted full, unfettered access to any site. US negotiators reportedly offered last week to strike the threat to use "all necessary means" if Saddam Hussein doesn't cooperate. But Paris still objected to the bit about "consequences."
"Our belief is there has to be reference to consequences, or there will be no incentive for Saddam to comply," says one US official. "Bridging the differences of opinion is difficult going, but we're trying to work on language that will get us there."
Some critics suspect the US proposal is just a pretext for war. "It's overwhelmingly in US interests that the decision to take military action not be by the US and the US alone," says a European Council member. "If that responsibility is shared, it will win broader international support, have less negative repercussions in the region, and will give any successor government in Iraq far greater legitimacy."
Though neither the US, which drafted their resolution with British approval, nor the French have yet formally circulated their proposals among the 15-member Security Council, diplomats say the French resolution seems to be winning the support of Council members. But to become international law, it would need at least nine votes and no veto from the P5.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said Wednesday, through a spokeswoman, that Council credibility may suffer if it does not "face its responsibilities" to, as the UN charter says, "maintain international peace and security."
Meanwhile, outside the world body a more radical idea is getting attention.
In its proposal "A New Approach: Coercive Inspections," the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests a middle path between war and the resumption of ineffectual inspections: that a US-led military force of 40,000-plus troops escort weapons inspectors into Iraq.
Carnegie began peddling the proposal in early September when Bush administration hawks advocating "regime change" still had the upper hand. Its authors presented their ideas to top White House and Pentagon officials, and on Sept. 19, to the US House International Relations Committee. So far, though, only some US analysts and commentators not world leaders and policymakers are promoting it.
Still, "With all the incontrovertible risks of war with Iraq, any administration would have to think twice, three times, five times about going to war," says Carnegie President Jessica Mathews.
"But I also feel these weapons of mass destruction must be dealt with. So, the field ought to be open to a better idea."