As America's intense military buildup in the Gulf region continues, the Bush administration confronts a world that is saying, essentially, "give inspections more of a chance."
President Bush must soon decide whether the US will agree that inspections can work and merit additional months, or that they are failing and that the solution to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein is war. And he will have to decide what weight to give the international community in making that decision.
With even the British now saying the inspections process may need more time than the next three weeks to determine whether the Iraqi regime can be successfully disarmed without war, the Iraqi crisis is far from the clearly defined place the Bush White House had hoped it would be in by this point.
If it wants broad international backing for war, the US must do more than denounce "incomplete" Iraqi cooperation in weapons inspections, experts say. They see a number of ways Bush can still bring the world in line with the US, including:
• A convincing presidential speech, along the lines of Mr. Bush's speech to the United Nations Sept. 12 that set the stage for the UN's latest resolution targeting Iraq.
• A full-court diplomatic press involving high-level administration officials hitting the tarmac of key friends and allies.
• An Anglo-American dossier forcefully laying out the case against Mr. Hussein - the way the two allies made the case against Afghanistan's Taliban regime.
• An incontrovertible piece of evidence that shocks the world into accepting that Hussein will never change his stripes.
The American "presentation" could take place the week of Jan. 27, when several sessions have been set aside at the UN in New York for hearing and debating the UN inspectors' report on Iraqi cooperation with their work.
Yet even Bush's closest foreign ally on Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said Monday that while Jan. 27 will be important, the inspectors should be allowed to "do their task" and no "arbitrary time scale" should be put on their work. In addition, UN inspectors said Monday their work could take up to a year.
"This is one of those moments when presidents earn their salaries," says William Quandt, a member of the national security team in the Carter White House. "This is turning out to be very complex, because if we want to go to war with some degree of international cooperation, we have to be able to argue something beyond missing information."
In an initial report to the Security Council last week, UN inspectors said they had yet to find a "smoking gun" indicating a continuing weapons program in Iraq. But they also stiffly criticized an Iraqi failure to disclose information to explain glaring gaps in their Dec. 7 weapons declaration. The US quickly cited the criticism as support for its view that Iraq is failing the cooperation test.
But some observers say the impact of the report is not so clear cut. "It would have been easier for the administration if the Iraqis had failed the first inspections test, but instead they got a kind of pass-fail extension. That complicates things for Bush considerably," says Thomas Henriksen, an American foreign-policy specialist at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif.
To a certain degree, the Bush administration is in a spot similar to where it was last summer, when it was debating internally whether to largely "go it alone" against Iraq, or to take the time to try to bring the international community along. Bush decided then to follow Secretary of State Colin Powell's advice and take the international path.
But some key countries are even more resolutely opposed to war now than they were then. Turkey, for example, has yet to decide on opening its bases to US troops, in large part because of a public overwhelmingly opposed to war next door.
"Once again, we're at a point where the US has to show leadership if it wants the world to follow down a certain path, but it's going to take some intense diplomatic work," says John Hulsman, a European-relations specialist at the Heritage Foundation.
A Bush speech is one direction the US could take. The US could also demonstrate through a diplomatic offensive that it is willing to meet allies' concerns in some ways - for example, by expressing an openness to a second UN resolution authorizing force.
Hoover's Mr. Henriksen says everything from the unrelenting military buildup, to a tip-off by Mr. Powell that a US "presentation" is coming, tells him the US has some "dramatic" evidence to play against Hussein at the right time. "They'll play their hand at the right time, which I assume will be when the military is fully ready to go," he says.
At the same time, some observers say that signals Powell is sending to play down the importance of Jan. 27 as a crunch date could mean the administration is preserving the option of deciding not to wage war this spring.
Mr. Quandt, now an international studies professor at the University of Virginia, says his hunch is that Bush will stick with the "hawks" in the administration. But Bush could yet douse the war fires - claiming, for example, that it was the American threat of war and the no-bluffs military buildup that put Hussein in a safe box "where he could be watched," Quandt says. "The conservative pundits and hawkish wing of the administration would protest," he says, "but they'd have to go along with the president."