By declaring that Iraq's 12,000-page weapons dossier falls short of full disclosure, the Bush administration may be beginning the endgame of its diplomatic confrontation with Saddam Hussein.
Such an official declaration - which President Bush could make as early as Thursday - could serve two specific US purposes. First, it might speed up the United Nations inspections process, which has frustrated US officials with its slowness. Second, it might define the international and domestic debate over Iraq at a crucial moment.
In the weeks to come, the White House wants the world to focus on what it calls the distortions and omissions of Iraq's UN- ordered weapons report. It does not want the UN Security Council to base its future course of action on what inspectors might find in Iraq proper - mostly because the US thinks Mr. Hussein has learned from the past, and the inspectors won't find much.
"This is the moment for the administration to make the case that even if they don't get a smoking gun [from inspectors], this weapons report is enough to declare Iraq in material breach of UN sanctions," says Rachel Bronson, head of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
At a National Security Council meeting Wednesday, Mr. Bush was to consider the issue of whether to go public with the administration's belief that Iraq is in violation of its obligation to fully disclose all data related to its weapons of mass destruction.
The material Iraq dumped on the UN to substantiate its claims that it has no WMD programs was mostly years-old, according to administration officials. It made no attempt to address some key issues, such as the fate of some chemical weapons that Iraq admitted to having in the past.
At the time of writing, it was uncertain whether Bush would simply issue a statement on the matter or address the nation to talk about his decision. This might reflect some discussion within the administration's national security team as to whether such an open challenge to Iraq is the right thing to do now.
"I think they are a little bit conflicted about it, frankly," says Gary Schmitt, executive director and security analyst at the Project for a New American Century in Washington. "They are a little bit anxious about saying he is in material breach and then letting that hang and not being able to act on it for a while."
The US won't be able to act on the declaration because officials have made it clear that this declaration alone does not constitute a declaration of war. It moves the US closer toward conflict, perhaps, but all signs indicate that the White House will continue to operate within the framework of the UN. "They are moving according to the process agreed to in the Security Council," says Helle Dale, deputy director of the Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
The US does want to manage the UN process as much as possible, however. As US troops and military material flow steadily toward the Middle East, the White House does not want diplomacy to lag too much. If it does, the Pentagon might have to support tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen at forward-deployed locations for months, and might miss the optimal fighting season for the region - January and February.
Furthermore, there are indications that the US public, as well as the world at large, still needs to be convinced that ousting Hussein is so important it might require the nation to go to war.
More than two-thirds of respondents to a Los Angeles Times poll released Tuesday said that the Bush administration has so far failed to make a case that war is justified. And in a Washington Post survey released Wednesday, 54 percent of respondents said that Bush might act too quickly to use force. These figures show why the current moment in time is so important, says Ms. Bronson of the Council on Foreign Relations.
If the White House wants to convince others that Hussein is a dire threat, they might need to reveal why they think he's up to his old tricks. "They need to show their hand in terms of revealing some information as to why Iraq is in breach of UN sanctions," says Bronson.
This might mean revealing sensitive intelligence information. It might also just mean pulling together unclassified material and presenting it in a more convincing way.
If inspections drag on and inspectors find nothing, the UN might become more and more reluctant to opt for military action.
In fact, experts who believe Hussein needs to be ousted say that time might be on Iraq's side.
"We could be setting ourselves up for a serious confrontation with the Security Council," says Helle Dale of Heritage.