President Bush's decision to jump-start a new U.N. Security Council debate on Iraq next week is a gambit aimed at seizing control of the diplomatic timetable and forcing the confrontation with Saddam Hussein to a resolution by the end of March.
In recent weeks, as France and other allies argued that U.N. arms monitors should be given more time, Bush and his aides worried that the Security Council was descending into a pitfall they call "the inspections trap" -- focusing on a lengthy process of inspections instead of Iraq's failure to account for missing weapons.
To avoid that, Bush intends to press the Security Council to enforce the tough resolution it passed by a 15-0 vote in November calling on Iraq to disarm or face "serious consequences."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will outline the U.S. case, including new intelligence purportedly showing that Iraq has been hoodwinking the inspectors, at the Security Council on Wednesday. But Powell's mission is also intended to speed up talks to determine whether the council can agree on a new resolution authorizing military action against Baghdad -- or, instead, whether the United States and its allies will move toward war without formal U.N. approval.
"We are now entering the final phase," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.
"This is a diplomatic window ... [but] there can be no mistaking the president's resolve that a coalition will disarm Saddam Hussein if he doesn't do it himself."
Powell's mission does not mean that the U.S. has shortened its timetable for a decision on war, officials said. The administration still intends to spend several weeks trying to build an international consensus, even as its military deployments mount.
But Bush aides also believe that there is no reason to allow diplomatic maneuvers to stretch as long as eight weeks, the time it took the Security Council to agree on its resolution last fall.
The administration's preferred timetable would likely put the moment of decision in the second half of March -- still within the "weather window" the Pentagon prefers for fighting a desert war.
"Time is running out" has been the White House's refrain over the last three weeks.
On Wednesday, there was a new phrase of the day: "a diplomatic window." Officials stressed that Bush does not intend to leave the window open for long.
Bush's decision to dispatch Powell to New York to place a challenge before the Security Council echoes the president's diplomatic gambit in September, when he galvanized the United Nations into action by warning that inaction was making the world body irrelevant.
The challenge now, just as it was last fall, will be to press the Security Council to an early conclusion.
Diplomacy frequently takes longer than this often impatient administration would like; allies who demanded eight weeks to draft a resolution in the fall do not seem likely to accept a quicker timetable now for the decision to go to war.
In fact, one of the reasons Bush acted now was the perception that without a vigorous U.S. initiative, control of the timetable -- and, thus, the outcome -- could slip into the hands of the Iraqi president.
The longer the inspections continued inconclusively, administration officials believed, the more Iraq would play on the differences among Security Council members -- and the greater the likelihood that the fragile consensus on the council might collapse.
In the coming weeks, the administration will be working on several fronts to persuade the members of the Security Council, and other allies, to endorse military action against Iraq.
Powell will brief the council armed with new intelligence information, including satellite photographs that the U.S. says show Iraqi officials removing evidence from sites just before the U.N. inspectors arrive.
Bush will also play host to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the two most powerful European leaders who have been generally supportive of his policy on Iraq.
It is not yet clear whether Bush will also meet with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who have been his most unrelenting critics among traditional U.S. allies. No conversations with Chirac or Schroeder have yet been scheduled, an official said, although "there will be many, many contacts with many countries."
"We're going to talk to all the members of the council," another official said. "We're not going to allow one or two to hang up the others."
Other administration officials will fan out across the globe with intelligence information and "talking points" to try to bring the other allies around.
The basic idea, officials said, is to show that the United States has "exhausted" the U.N. process -- so that even if the Security Council cannot agree on military action, allied governments will feel more justified in joining a "coalition of the willing" against Iraq.
And, they added, there is still a glimmer of hope that the relentless march toward war might somehow prompt Hussein to surrender, or one of his lieutenants to mount a coup.
"Powell has always argued that we come out stronger the more we stick with the U.N. process," a senior State Department official said. "He supports the military preparation and the possible use of force. But he also knows that the more we talk about the use of force, the better the chance we won't have to use it."
The week's rapid chain of events -- Powell's speech Sunday warning that the United States was ready to act alone if necessary; U.N. chief inspector Hans Blix's report the next day that Iraq had failed to meet its obligation to disarm; Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday calling for the Security Council to meet next week -- has generated new momentum for the diplomatic process, a State Department official argued.
And, he said, a consensus at the U.N. is still possible.
"We've gotten shades of light from the French and Russians indicating they don't want to be dealt out of the hand," he said.
To get the allies on board, the United States "may have to consider some trade-offs, including timing, and see if on balance it also serves our interests," another official said.
But any further delay in the timetable could reignite battles within the administration, with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expressing skepticism about the usefulness of further diplomacy.
At the moment, one official said, those internal battles have reached a cease-fire.
The administration's hard-liners "are willing to give diplomacy some time because we're not likely to be ready militarily until later in February, so there's nothing to be lost," he said. "But that could change when we get to mid- or late February.... The hard-liners will effectively impose a time limit. But that could help bolster Powell's hand at the Security Council."