When President Bush says Saddam Hussein will be disarmed - with or without war - few people around the world doubt him. It's the "without war" clause that looks less and less likely.
Scenarios for accomplishing Iraq's disarmament without the use of force by the world's only superpower are still viable, experts say, but the window on them is closing fast.
They cite three reasons:
• Because a solution short of war depends on Saddam Hussein, who shows few signs of having changed his well-honed behavior of international deception.
• Because the US goal remains regime change and not just Iraqi disarmament.
• Because President Bush failed early on to win over countries that could have helped make an outcome other than war work.
"The only way I can see a solution to this for the US - short of war - is to reach an iron-clad agreement for Saddam Hussein to destroy his weapons, all his stocks, his chemicals, everything very quickly - say, within two weeks," says Henri Barkey, a former State Department Iraq analyst who is now a professor of Middle East affairs at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn. "Either that or Saddam exits."
Historic precedent exists for the US reaching the brink of war - even nuclear war - and pulling back without giving up its main goal in the crisis. Throughout the Iraq confrontation, scholars have pointed to parallels with President Kennedy's treatment of the Cuban missile crisis. But other experts point to the previous administration, Eisenhower's, for lessons on how a conflict was resolved - in this case with China over Taiwan - without resorting to confrontation.
In March 1955 President Eisenhower frightened Americans and caused an international uproar during the conflict with China by saying that "A-bombs can be used ... as you would use a bullet." US military leaders predicted war, saying the president was planning "to destroy Red China's military potential."
Whether Eisenhower ever seriously intended to use nuclear weapons remains debatable, but what is clear is that within a month China ceased attacks on Taiwan and announced a desire for negotiations.
In a similar way, President Bush's uncompromising position on Iraq - the constant threat of military force - is widely credited, even by United Nations weapons inspectors, as the only way the Iraqi regime is as closely scrutinized as it is today.
Coalition of the unwilling
But some experts say the brittle relations between the US and key international partners is also making the leap from brinkmanship to peaceful resolution less likely.
"There are two keys [to resolving the Iraq crisis short of war]: that the policy be tough, and that the international community stay and act together," says Bruce Jentleson, director of the Terry Sanford Institute for Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "The Bush administration has pursued the tough, but not the together."
Mr. Jentleson says a "deal" among international leaders that builds on the US toughness and achieves US goals without war is still possible - but it would have to be brokered "at the head-of-state level." Relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Jacques Chirac, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröeder have not been "engaged" at the level and intensity that would facilitate such an accord, he says.
Still, the channels for reaching what Mr. Barkey calls an "iron-clad agreement" remain open.
Russian experts note that the White House this week received a high-level envoy from President Putin. Vladimir Voloshin told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice - as well as Bush, in a few-minute chat with the president - that Russia considers the door to a compromise on the clash of visions in the United Nations Security Council still open.
The Russians also claim they have a commitment from Mr. Hussein for "full cooperation" with UN weapons inspections. Barkey says Hussein would have to act "immediately and dramatically" to force any detour in the US path. "At the same time, it would be difficult for us to go to war if televisions around the world are full of scenes of the Iraqi regime destroying missiles and tons of anthrax."
The idea that the massive US military deployment in the Gulf region and months of bellicose rhetoric by the Bush administration makes it hard to back down now is also countered by those who say America's standing in the world would rise if a "peace through show of force" solution were reached. "The US wouldn't lose face if it decided not to go to war after the scenario of full destruction" of Iraqi arms, Barkey says. "In fact American prestige would be enhanced."
One tricky aspect of the US even looking like it was backing away from an attack is the likelihood that it would embolden Hussein to avoid disarming. "Already we see the huge international antiwar demonstrations having an impact in Iraq, in the end that kind of thing may make it more likely the US throws up its hands and decides we just have to do this," says Stephen Baker, a retired admiral and senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
And of course Hussein's full disarmament doesn't answer Bush's demand for regime change in Iraq. The President has embraced the vision of some of his top aides of a democratic Iraq that would serve as a model for a wave of change in the Middle East - a vision Bush was to have outlined Wednesday night in a Washington speech.
Accepting anything less than war with Iraq now might bolster Bush's image and views of his judgment for many both at home and abroad. But it would certainly wound his credibility with others who expect this war to kill a number of birds with one stone.