The Bush Administration is now waging a final, intensive effort to obtain as much international support and as broad a legal justification as possible for military action against Iraqi ships, hoping to head off charges that only Western powers support the use of force.
The focus of the American effort is at the United Nations, where the United States this week has been seeking, so far without success, a new resolution that would specifically authorize the use of force to uphold economic sanctions against Iraq.
"A United Nations umbrella would alleviate tensions," one U.S. official observed Tuesday. "We (the United States) will get blamed anyway (for military action against Iraq), but it would be nice to at least have a U.N. umbrella over us."
But no U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force has been passed since the beginning of the Korean War, and despite their general support for economic sanctions, the Soviet Union and China are balking at taking such a drastic step.
"We want to have this thing resolved in the next couple of days," said one senior State Department official, referring to the question of how much diplomatic or United Nations support there will be for military action.
Even as it pushes for U.N. authorization, the Bush Administration is carefully emphasizing that no new legal underpinning is required--and that the United States and allies such as Britain and France are willing to go ahead on their own with the use of force to prevent Iraqi ships from trying to break the economic embargo.
"The legitimate government of Kuwait has asked us and others to see that the sanctions are enforced, and we are complying with that request," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday.
Asked why the Bush Administration is seeking U.N. authorization for the use of force, Boucher replied, "The broader the effort, the better."
In the first week after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Bush Administration was able to obtain a remarkable international consensus supporting U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq. But the intense diplomatic maneuvering of the past few days underscores some of the divisions that have emerged on the question of whether to use military force--and if so, how much--to enforce sanctions.
These differences exist even among the Western nations that have already said they are willing to use force. One senior Western diplomat said in Washington this week that his country might be able to support a surgical bombing strike in Iraq, but only if it had a very clear and limited purpose.
He said that his country fully supports U.S. action so far --the placement of troops in Saudi Arabia, the economic embargo and the naval blockade-- but that further action needs a proper diplomatic "pretext." Without it, he said, President Bush risks losing the international consensus he has worked so hard to build.
Moreover, the Western diplomat said, any military action that goes beyond a surgical air strike would not, at this stage, be supported by his government. He suggested that the United States should work harder to gain U.N. approval for its actions in the Middle East.
On Monday, at a time when two Iraqi ships were heading in international waters toward Yemen, the Administration hurriedly asked the U.N. Security Council to approve a resolution permitting the use of military force against Iraqi ships.
Security Council action was postponed after Yemen agreed to let the Iraqi tankers dock without unloading their oil. However, the Bush Administration has continued to press for Security Council approval of the use of force.
The two main targets of U.S. diplomacy have been the Soviet Union and China. Both are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and either of them could veto the new American proposal for the use of force.
On Tuesday, in an interview with the state-run New China News Service, Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations Li Daoyu strongly implied that China might veto any U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.
Mann reported from Washington and Houston from the United Nations in New York. Times staff writer Maura Reynolds also contributed to this report.