With the US and France inching closer to a deal that would resume UN weapons inspections of Iraq, the sticking point remains how to restrain the perceived American impulse to act unilaterally, diplomats here say.
The five permanent, veto-bearing members of the UN Security Council the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China met yesterday in an effort to bridge the narrowing gap between the two sides. At press time, some diplomats said a formal resolution might be circulated among the Council's entire 15-nation membership by day's end, or perhaps Wednesday.
One month into contentious negotiations between rival proposals, "we're all now working from one text," says one European diplomat on the Council close to the talks. "Basically, we were just doing the groundwork getting to the starting line; now we're moving off the starting line and doing the real work of negotiations."
A French diplomat, on her way into yesterday's negotiations, seemed to concur: "Progress has been made, but there remains much to do."
This week, President Bush appeared to tone down his earlier push for "regime change" in Iraq. And the French - who advocate a go-slow, two-stage resolution process that first outlines and launches inspections, then requires a second resolution to authorize use of force in case of Iraqi non-compliance now believe they have a commitment from Washington that it won't act alone to determine when to use military action, says the European diplomat. Such a commitment may be spelled out in the resolution.
"Council members wanted a reassurance from the US that it will continue to engage with the Security Council as long as the Council is gripping this issue seriously," says the European diplomat.
Indeed, if certain Council members namely the French and Russians - are seen as blocking a military response at all costs, even in the face of blatant Iraqi noncompliance, it's understood the US "won't wait around for you to decide."
A key term in the resolution may be that in case of Iraqi noncompliance, the Council will reconvene to "consider" not "decide" a second resolution authorizing force. It's a notable French concession, say observers, and what some are calling "one-and-a-half resolutions."
If chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix reports that his work is clearly being impeded by Baghdad, Council members agree to reconvene and confer, but not necessarily to pass a second resolution the French has earlier insisted upon.
The American side, for its part, while having last week jettisoned the phrase "all means necessary" a de facto trigger for military action to force Iraqi compliance, continues to press for mention of "serious consequences."
The French have concluded "that we're very serious about what we're saying and that there has to be some element of consequences in any resolution," says a US official. "We're trying to get consensus for a resolution with teeth that will do the job. But the president has made clear, if we can't get a tough resolution through, he will lead a coalition to disarm Iraq."
Washington, say observers, has dropped several conditions from its original draft resolution: military escorts for weapons inspectors, which would be seen as too provocative and a breach of national sovereignty; the right of Council members to appoint nationals to observe the work of inspectors, who, in contrast with earlier inspections teams, will not be heavily Western but composed of many Russians, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans; and possibly the demand that Iraqi scientists and their families be flown out of the country for interviews.
In return, observers say, the resolution may include a US demand for the phrasing that Iraq is in "material breach" of past UN resolutions.
"The more you point to a pattern of obstruction, and use diplomatic language which is stealth terminology for military action, the less likely the US goes back to the Council for deliberations when Iraq impedes inspectors," says David Phillips of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Observers and diplomats say the resolution may be headed into the realm of "constructive ambiguity" with different sides interpreting the resolution differently. Some say that may be a recipe for future conflict.
"Our allies on the Council do not want the Council used as a rubber stamp on American military action; they want to have a real role," says David Scheffer, senior vice president of the nonpartisan United Nations Association. "We have reached a fork in the road where legalistic interpretations ... will not build coalitions. Rather, what will build a strong coalition against Iraq is language that everyone clearly understands. If the US continues to argue that its interpretation of this resolution is that it can use military force, then I think we still have a problem with the French."