With the UN Security Council set to vote as early as Tuesday on a deadline of March 17 for Iraq to disarm, countries on the 15-member Council are approaching the question as a watershed moment influencing much more than just the fate of Iraq.
Among Council members, the growing conclusion seems to be that the US has made up its mind and will go to war with or without UN backing. So countries are using the moment to emphasize issues other than just Saddam Hussein that they believe should prevail.
"This has got to the point where it's about much more than just Iraq," says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "This debate is forcing issues that have been under the surface for a while to come to a head."
With the outcome still up in the air on a debate that many countries see having repercussions for years to come, diplomatic pressures to sway undecided votes continue to intensify. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin set off yesterday on a lightning tour of three African countries currently on the Council, while Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, said she and Secretary of State Colin Powell were prepared to travel to press the US position.
In various television appearances yesterday, Secretary Powell responded to complaints from several Council members that the March 17 deadline was unrealistically short by saying, "We have no plans to change the date."
Amid the lobbying, Council members press what they see as the core issues the Council is facing. For some countries, the issue is whether the United Nations will continue to strive to work through consensus. For others, it is whether the international community will condone the idea of "preventive war" or favor peaceful means over the use of force to solve security problems.
For the US, the core question is whether the United Nations will continue to be a "relevant" player in the world by enforcing its own decisions. That is a challenge Mr. Bush put to the United Nations in his speech to the international body last September. And as the president said in his evening press conference last Thursday, it is time for Security Council members "to show their cards."
But with the stakes seen as so high by so many countries, even last Friday's offer by the US, Britain, and Spain to give Iraq the March 17 deadline to disarm appears to have a weak chance of swaying the required nine Council members in favor of the US.
France, the Council's most outspoken opponent of the Bush administration's concept of preventive war, is leaving little doubt it will use the veto it holds as a permanent member of the Council to defeat the resolution. Permanent member Russia is making similar noises. American and British officials say winning nine votes, even if the measure were vetoed, would still constitute a kind of moral victory.
The deadline is part of an amendment to a resolution the Council will vote on that says Iraq "will have failed to take the final opportunity to disarm" if it does not demonstrate "full, unconditional, immediate and active cooperation" by March 17.
As one of 10 rotating members on the Council, Mexico is an example of the undecided countries that are caught in the middle, trying to balance convictions against political pressures. This weekend, Mexican President Vicente Fox warned Mexicans to prepare for a war he said could start "any day," but he also said Mexico was standing by its traditional foreign-policy line of emphasizing peaceful resolution of conflict over the use of force.
According to Mr. Fox, Mexico is working with Chile, another rotating member of the Council, on a "third way" between the US and Britain on one side and France, Russia, and China on the other. Chile - whose president, Ricardo Lagos, has already told Bush the March 17 deadline is too short and makes Iraqi compliance "impossible" - is suggesting it could abstain in the vote.
Mexico also offers an example of how the US is bumping up against a global growth of democracy - the same democracy it says it hopes to implant in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
Just as the loss of a crucial vote in Turkey's parliament over basing of US troops on Turkish soil can be chalked up to the domestic pressures of a functioning democracy, Mexico's internal politics also weighs heavily on the Fox government.
Fox, elected amid much fanfare in 2000 as the first president from Mexico's opposition and thus the symbol of Mexico's democratic coming of age, faces tough legislative elections this summer with a predominantly antiwar electorate.
"Fox is facing intense pressure from the population, the opposition parties, and the media, all of whom want Mexico to resist war in favor of a peaceful resolution of the Iraq conflict," says Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City political scientist.
"It will be very hard for Mexico to vote its convictions, because that would be a vote against the US, and the realities of that are very troublesome for the bilateral relationship," he says. "Clearly what Mexico hopes is that enough countries make clear they will either vote no or veto, so the US proceeds without a vote and it is spared this wrenching choice."