Picture the Lilliputians pulling ropes, tying knots, doing their best to restrain the giant Gulliver. As a historic vote on Iraq nears at the United Nations, some observers describe what is happening as a similarly Swiftian scene.
The world, more concerned about the unbridled use of American power than it is about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, is as intent on limiting the giant's power as it is in taking away the despot's weapons.
The global interest in restraining American power is one factor explaining why so many countries are balking at US pressure to support its resolution in the United Nations Security Council. It also explains why so many are supporting France and its alternative approach to dealing with Baghdad.
The French proposal, not yet submitted, would require the US to return to the UN to seek permission to go to war, should a new weapons-inspection regime fail to disarm Iraq. How the US responds to this attempt to hobble its power may set the tone for global relations for years to come.
Analysts note that the US under President Bush has had some notable successes at playing the geopolitical game drawing Russia into the Western fold, and mending relations with China, for example. But some wonder if the US could squander those gains by single-mindedly pursuing Mr. Hussein, a gambit that many countries perceive as unilateral action.
"There are risks for the United States ... especially in respect to some of the gains it has made in the geopolitical sphere," says Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.
Many heads of state are dealing with domestic constituencies that oppose cooperation with the US on Iraq, prompting some leaders to temper their support for America. Russian President Vladimir Putin "was already seen as a little too pro-American when it came to the US going to war in Afghanistan," Mr. Henriksen says. Any Russian still longing for the glory days of the Soviet Union, "feels strongly that Putin has to stiffen his response to the US."
A Security Council vote that had looked imminent may now be pushed back until just after the US midterm elections next week. That would give the Bush administration time to continue negotiating for as much international support as possible for a tough inspections resolution. It's a stance that the US electorate wants from the White House, according to opinion polls.
The White House is portraying the situation as a win-win for the US. On the one hand, it either results in the US-authored resolution with "triggers" for US military action in the event Hussein fails, as expected, to comply with the stiff requirements. Such a resolution would include reference to "consequences" if Saddam fails to meet all demands, and to the Iraqi leader being in "material breach" of UN resolutions phrasing taken in international diplomacy to authorize war.
The US was "heartened," one official close to negotiations says, by chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix's support Monday for just such a tough resolution.
Or the Council could deliver a weak resolution. That would open the door to the US declaring it did everything it could to work with the world body, but the UN failed the backbone test. Consequently, the US is creating its own coalition.
STILL, some countries believe the US is going to do what it wants anyway. That's one reason they are focusing as much on how to deal with American power as on how to defang Hussein.
"This debate that's been going on in the UN for six weeks now is an extraordinary indicator of the degree to which America's power makes other countries uncomfortable," says Stephen Walt, a foreign-policy expert at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
The mixed diplomatic imperatives are putting the US in a difficult negotiating position, he says. The US attempt to pressure the UN to take action, applied in tandem with veiled threats to use power alone, only makes reaching the goal of international unity against Iraq more problematic. "The more willing and even eager we appear to use that power, the more uncomfortable others are likely to be," Mr. Walt adds.
The US case is also complicated by the Bush administration's new National Security Strategy, laying out the right to take preventive military action against suspected threats. The so-called Bush doctrine, which goes beyond the UN-sanctioned right to act in self-defense against a threat, crowded the Iraq debate with new concerns about the US's intentions.
Administration officials are mostly leaving to like-minded pundits the job of casting doubt over the motives of countries chiefly France and Russia that are so far standing in the way of a resolution that includes authorization of American use of force.
France is motivated by its lucrative oil and other contracts with Iraq, those observers say. Russia, for its part, is mostly interested in collecting $8 billion in debt from Iraq and pursuing other business interests.
But the case of Mexico, one of 10 rotating members of the Security Council which so far has sided with France on curtailing any war "triggers" in the resolution, illustrates the nonpecuniary motivations.
"Public opinion in Mexico is not favorable to a war with Iraq, and it would be very costly politically for President [Vicente] Fox to support the US at this point," says Jorge Chabat, a noted Mexican specialist in international relations in Mexico City.
"It is not a case of being pro-French or even anti-American," Mr. Chabat says. "But Mexicans have had their own experience with American power," he adds, noting Mexico's historic loss of half its territory to the US in the 19th century. "Mexican people, more even than other people in the world, are not anxious to support the US in its use of power."