After a month of failing to reach a compromise with veto-wielding France and Russia, the US is now courting Mexico, Ireland, and the other members of the UN Security Council in an effort to win support for a tough Iraq inspection resolution.
Washington's end run may be spurred by the fact that the ideal weather in which to attack Iraq narrows by the day. But, say analysts, the gambit carries risks.
"The clock is ticking, so the US is calling their bluff," says David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy. "If it requires a vote that isolates the French and the Russians, so be it."
Passage of a resolution would require nine "yes" votes on the 15-member Council, while avoiding veto from any of the permanent five the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China. A vote may come during the weekend or early next week.
But, adds Mr. Malone, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, the US strategy shift may not produce the best outcome. "A vote that went through with only nine votes would represent a very significant chunk of the world failing to support the strategy encompassed and is a less than optimal outcome."
On Wednesday, Washington and London moved to skirt the obstruction of France and Russia and to a lesser degree, China by circulating its resolution for resuming weapons inspections among the remaining Council members.
US officials had for weeks maintained they first wanted to reach consensus among the permanent five Council members. "There's impatience that this has gone on too long," says a Bush administration official. "The president has said this has to be dealt with in a matter of weeks, not months. It's time to bring in the 10, let them have their say, and bring this to a vote."
The rotating, nonpermanent 10 who serve two-year terms and have no veto power are currently Bulgaria, Cameroon, Colombia, Guinea, Ireland, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Singapore, and Syria. At this point, say observers, the only nonpermanent members that may vote against the US resolution or abstain are Syria and the Francophone Cameroon and Guinea.
An uneven vote, though, bolsters Saddam Hussein's hand. He has split the Council and undermined inspections over the years, and analysts say that must be countered with a united Council.
France and Russia say they would like to see Iraq fulfill the terms of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire and be fully disarmed, but have not ruled out vetoing any resolution that includes language threatening Iraq with force for noncompliance. Still, France has not vetoed an American resolution since 1956.
The French have pushed for a two-stage approach: an ultimatum-free first resolution that outlines the resumption of weapons inspections, and a second resolution to consider authorization of force if the Iraqis are deemed noncompliant.
The US has agreed to drop several conditions, including having armed escorts for the weapons inspectors and flying Iraqi scientists and their families out of the country for interviews away from the watchful eyes of Iraqi "minders." Most significantly, Washington had conceded that if UN inspectors report Iraqi deception or obstruction, the Council would reconvene to decide what to do next. But the Americans insisted that their hands wouldn't be tied awaiting agreement on a second resolution.
Meanwhile, some US military planners say any military attack must be made during the Iraqi winter, before the onset of rain, floods, and oppressive heat. While the US is faulted for taking several weeks to modify its original draft proposal, it now says it has negotiated with the French and Russians in good faith and can compromise no more.
Conversely, some are wondering if the French have pushed too hard. Many in the international community had praised France for seeming to stand up to the Bush doctrine of "preemption." But the American move now may throw Paris on the defensive. And if the French don't budge, it may prove a Pyrrhic victory.
"The worst outcome is not a divided vote, which still allows the French to maintain the virginity of their principles," says Malone. "The worst possible outcome would be the Americans walking away from the Council altogether."
If the Security Council foils the tough approach, Washington and London vow to lead a "coalition of the willing" to disarm Baghdad themselves. That runs the risk of appearing unilateralist, which is reportedly what President Bush was trying to avoid when he first approached the UN on Sept. 12.
"If the process runs into the sand because the Council blocks it, Washington can say, 'We tried everything we could,' " says Terence Taylor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. "If France and Russia want the Americans, and the Brits for that matter, to use the Security Council fully, they have to be prepared to compromise. It's essential that there be an explicit message to Baghdad that there will be consequences if they do not cooperate. If the resolution is too diluted, it could have the effect of making war more likely than it already is."