With unanimous passage of a Security Council resolution demanding Iraq's disarmament, the calendar of events in Iraq speeds up - making the question of what happens should Saddam Hussein be ousted suddenly more urgent.
Until now, say many analysts and exiled Iraqis, a post-Hussein transition has been left to second-rung importance and squabbles among power factions. Indeed, with a key conference of Iraqi opposition forces later this month in Brussels, some observers are worried that the US still appears undecided on what opposition groups or model for a post-Hussein Iraq to stand behind.
Of course, it remains to be seen what course of action Mr. Hussein chooses. Privately, however, US officials are convinced that he is extremely unlikely to give up his weapons and weapons programs voluntarily - thus accelerating the war drumbeat.
In this environment, the White House, State Department, and Pentagon are advancing ideas for handling Iraq after Hussein. So far, officials appear to be falling in behind two basic visions: a "light" nation-building option, and a "heavy" US-led occupation and refashioning of the country.
"There is no question there is going to be change in Iraq," says Laith Kubba, an Iraqi and senior program officer for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. "The question now is how."
The "light" option envisions the US role in Iraq more as a "liberation" than as an "occupation." It has the added advantage in supporters' eyes of costing less and risking less anti-American backlash from nationalistic Iraqis. The idea would be to quickly call on Iraqis themselves to rebuild their country.
One historical example of this would be the liberation of France in 1944, when Allied commanders decided to allow French soldiers under Gen. Charles de Gaulle to lead victorious forces into Paris - even though it was Yankee boys who had done the liberating. The idea was to pave the way for France's quick stabilization by building confidence among the French that they were not a conquered people and had leadership ready to rebuild the country.
It should be noted that this idea builds from lower expectations for Iraq's transition - and sets up a clash between the goals of a merely better, weapons-free Iraq, and an Iraq endowed with a full democracy that serves as an example for the Middle East.
"There are people who contend we should be ambitiously defining democracy, and for whom the only acceptable objective [in Iraq] is perfection that bowls over the region," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But our target should be something less ambitious," he believes, "where our role gives Iraqis a chance for a much better government but accepts that the outcome may not be everything we hoped for."
Critics of the "light" approach say only a military occupation with a heavy commitment of US forces and resources, at least in the first years following Hussein's ouster, will be able to avoid chaos and the possible breakup of the country - something the US is promising edgy neighboring countries it won't allow to occur. Experts who believe a "heavy" occupation will be required foresee a need for at least 100,000 foreign troops in Iraq for several years, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars a year.
The Pentagon, in fact, is preparing to set up a postwar government of occupation modeled on post-World War II military governments in Germany and Japan.
At the same time, the US military is beginning to train a 5,000-soldier Iraqi opposition force that could play a role analogous to the French Resistance in World War II, which was a key factor in the French quickly rebuilding their government.
The State Department is also moving ahead, with emphasis on preparing exiled Iraqi organizations to help build a new government.
To judge by White House rhetoric, it might appear that the US has already opted for an extremely ambitious occupation and reconstruction plan for Iraq. In his Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations, President Bush spoke of prospects for an Iraq that is a beacon for its neighbors, through a pluralistic, representative government and full respect for human rights.
More recently, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said in an interview with the Financial Times of London that the US would be "completely devoted" to rebuilding Iraq as a democracy in the interest of assisting "the march of freedom in the Muslim world."
Such lofty ambitions have many critics, however. On one hand, nation-building skeptics say the US is biting off more than it can chew in a region suspicious of its motives. "We were only supposed to be in Bosnia one year, but there we still are seven years out," says Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.
On the other hand, many firm believers in nation-building doubt that the US under the Bush administration has the stamina for a long commitment to rebuilding Iraq. "There's a lot of noise out of the administration about planning for a post-Saddam Iraq, but I don't see much evidence of a learning curve from Afghanistan," says Martha Brill Olcott, a nation-building expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Afghanistan has been "pretty much nation-building as usual," she says, with great fanfare over financial and other material commitments from donor nations, only to be followed by "the money coming forward at a much slower pace."
American reluctance to allow expansion of the international security force in Afghanistan beyond Kabul also worries some critics about the US military's willingness to carry out a long-term occupation.
In response to a query from members of Congress, the Congressional Budget Office last month estimated that just the military occupation of Iraq following a war there would cost $1 billion to $4 billion a month, depending on the number of forces involved.
As for the cost of reconstruction and building a "better" Iraq, the US and most experts are assuming that the oil-rich country could foot that bill itself. Iraq currently pumps about 2 million barrels of oil a day, but should be able to double that within a few years. With heavy foreign investment, experts say it could reach as much as 8 million barrels a day within a decade.
Still, the Washington Institute's Mr. Clawson notes that Iraq is heavily indebted, so he says oil should not be relied on as some magic enabler for Iraq's transition.