Like a team of trial lawyers, the Bush administration is meticulously preparing the case for war against Saddam Hussein, intent on ensuring that this time he does not get away.
Trial date: Dec. 8.
On that day, the Iraqi leader must provide the United Nations Security Council with a full listing of the weapons of mass destruction and weapons programs Iraq possesses.
The Bush White House is concerned that beginning with the list, Mr. Hussein will set in motion another round of "cheat and deceive" tactics to drag out the weapons inspections process, just now under way. Another aim, they believe, will be to drive wedges between the United States and other members of the international community.
So for the next two weeks, administration officials will continue to hammer away at what they see as constituting "material breach" of the UN resolution passed unanimously earlier this month. They will also warn that Hussein's list will of itself begin to determine if there will be war or not.
The process has already begun, with US assertions that Iraqi attacks on allied aircraft patrolling two no-fly zones over the country breach the resolution's demands.
President Bush also said last week, while on what is being seen as a successful support-building trip to Eastern Europe, that an Iraqi list not confessing to weapons possessions would mean Hussein was entering "his final stage with a lie."
The administration's intent in publicly forcing up the heat at this stage couldn't be more apparent, experts say. "The administration has a clear strategy under which it is racking up the allegations of failure to comply [with the UN], starting with the no-fly zones, and thereby raising the threshold for cooperation," says Ivo Daalder, a foreign-policy analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington who served in President Clinton's National Security Council.
"What has [the administration] worried is that they won't get out of the inspections early on anything that's a clear violation to press the need to go to war," Mr. Daalder adds. "So what they're trying to do is build a record."
Of course, war can still be avoided if, beginning on Dec. 8, Hussein "miraculously turns over a new leaf," as one administration official says, and submits a detailed weapons listing. But US officials continue to insist they don't expect that to happen. "On Dec. 8, we will receive the declaration, and it will be the first sign of whether or not the Iraqis intend to comply," Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN in Prague last week. "We remain skeptical."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a skeptic of weapons inspections, told ABC News that "if a country is determined to fool the inspectors, they can do that." And he told Pentagon correspondents that "regime change" in Iraq continues to be the will of Congress and the policy of the Bush administration.
Mr. Bush clearly built up momentum for his tough stance - and softened the ground internationally for an eventual conflict - during his Eastern European trip.
The closing event - a Kennedyesque appearance before thousands of waving well-wishers in Bucharest, Romania - offered the American president the opportunity to compare yesterday's tyrants and today's threats before a nation that just 12 years ago deposed its own iron-fisted ruler, Nicolae Ceausescu. With a cold rain pelting his black raincoat and uncovered head, Bush said, "You know the difference between good and evil, because you have seen evil's face. The people of Romania understand that aggressive dictators cannot be appeased or ignored. They must always be opposed."
Yet Bush's drumbeat also continues to meet resistance from other international quarters, with many foreign leaders pressing Iraq to comply with the UN resolution so that war can be avoided.
On Saturday, French President Jacques Chirac said at a Paris press conference following the Prague summit of NATO leaders that weapons inspections should be emphasized by all parties, as a way to avoid war. "I hope that everyone is aware that war is always the worst of solutions, and that it is in nobody's interest," he said.
Russian and Chinese leaders, who along with French officials pressed the US this fall to work within a UN framework, confirmed continued alignment with France's views over the weekend.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting Friday with Bush, supported America's tough line on inspections but stopped short of endorsing a turn to war.
Given both this lack of universal enthusiasm for war and the likelihood that Hussein will use the inspections process to draw the conflict out, some experts say "it makes good sense" for the US to make its case now, rather than waiting for the inspectors to turn up convincing evidence.
"Recognizing it's hard to keep a coalition together and expensive and problematic in other ways to keep forces in place for a year, the administration has decided it's better to have the crisis occur sooner rather than later," says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and foreign policy at Georgetown University in Washington.
He adds, "They realize it's better to begin a war over denial of weapons of mass destruction than over inspectors being delayed outside a presidential palace for a half hour or mysteriously getting two flat tires" on their way to an inspection.
And if Hussein does deny in his declaration having any weapons or weapons programs? Lieber guesses at that point, the US will come forward with "dramatic intelligence stuff" - the kind of "proof" that many critics of the US stance say has been lacking so far.
"I'd expect something like Adlai Stevenson in 1962," he says, when the Kennedy White House took intelligence photos to the UN to persuade the world that the Soviets had missiles in Cuba. "The preference is clearly to drive a hard line right away, rather than messing around for months and months."