Even as the Bush administration moves militarily and diplomatically toward war with Iraq, a conflict pitting the world's superpower against the Middle East's most notorious despot is not yet inevitable. But the scenarios for avoiding war in the first months of 2003 are shrinking.
Saddam Hussein continues to demonstrate, as with his recent decision to allow Iraqi weapons scientists to be interviewed outside the country, that he can still stretch out the weapons-inspections process and buy time and sympathy with the international community.
Furthermore, events external to the Iraqi confrontation, such as the deepening North Korean nuclear crisis, could also escalate to a point where they nudge aside Iraq from its full dominance of US sights.
But the US military mobilization, the administration's tough rhetoric, and the high bar for what would be an acceptable outcome, all have experts finding few scenarios under which war can be put off.
"I don't mean to say war is inevitable, because I don't think it is. But there's an internal dynamic to what's been done and what's under way now that will make it very hard to back off," says Ralph Peters, a former US Army intelligence specialist on the Middle East.
Many observers now see an apt comparison to the weeks preceding World War I, when European leaders spoke of avoiding war but set in motion a process that led to a point of no return.
"In 1914, the thinking was that nothing could stop the coming war, and similarly we're getting to a point where there's such a commitment to this and so much at stake that it will be very hard to stop the train," says Judith Yaphe, a senior Middle East analyst at the National Defense University in Washington.
Adding to the current sense of an approaching point of no return, the Pentagon has ordered a new deployment of ground forces, combat aircraft, and ground support for a potential Iraq war. The White House insists that this deployment, like earlier ones, is an attempt to keep up the pressure on Mr. Hussein to disarm.
Experts say the list of what could stop a war now is short:
• Events inside Iraq (most of which few experts expect to see), such as Hussein doing what almost everyone agrees he didn't do in his Dec. 7 weapons declaration: giving a full account of his weapons programs and swearing off their possession in the future. Domestic action against Hussein's rule, such as a military coup, could also forestall a war, but most experts say no rebellion against Hussein should be expected at least until American and allied troops hit Iraqi soil.
• Cataclysmic events outside Iraq, such as war on the Korean peninsula or a rapid deterioration into complete chaos and warfare in Afghanistan.
• Another 9/11-magnitude terrorist attack in North America.
But even these scenarios may fall into the category of "unlikely to put off a war," experts say.
"A frightful terrorist attack on New Year's Day might be so disorienting and prompt such questioning of how we're fighting terrorism that it might put off a war. But it could also act as an accelerator, providing an emotional reason to strike Iraq," says Mr. Peters. "If I were Saddam Hussein, I'd be hoping there's no major terrorist attack in North America."
Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a conservative think tank in Washington, says the North Korean crisis is about the only scenario he sees with the seriousness to turn the administration's focus from Iraq. "Even that I consider remote," he adds.
Despite Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recent pronouncement that the United States military could handle simultaneous crises in North Korea and Iraq, Mr. Schmitt says there are realistic limits.
"If you're facing a deteriorating situation that requires a buildup and focus on Korea, you're not going to have the concentration to do what you had planned in Iraq," Schmitt says. "That's why the administration is trying as hard as it can to keep the Korean crisis as low key as it can."
Of course North Korea, determined to command American attention, is not cooperating in this, taking almost daily action to force a US response. On Friday, the North expelled United Nations nuclear inspectors and announced it will reactivate a laboratory that the US claims can produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for several atomic bombs. The Koreans have said they were restarting the reactor to generate electricity.
The White House reacted calmly to the news, saying it would respond diplomatically by sending an envoy to the region next month.
But even with North Korea ringing alarm bells, Schmitt says it is still "some clever action" by Hussein that has the best chance of staving off war.
For example, Hussein could offer up just enough of some of the information that UN inspectors and the US say was missing from its weapons declaration to keep inspectors busy.
Yesterday, Iraq turned over to UN inspectors the names of hundreds of Iraqi scientists that Iraq says have been involved in weapons development.
But even Hussein's coming clean might not make a lot of difference at this point, experts say.
"What worries me most is that with all the expectations, the rhetoric, the soldiers ready to fight, the Bush administration feels trapped into fighting sooner rather than later," says Middle East specialist Peters - who believes the US should "take down" Hussein but should not be rushed into doing it.