President Bush made a determined show Thursday of what aides called "going the extra mile" to win international support for a war against Iraq: He canceled an appearance at a St. Patrick's Day lunch to work the phones with foreign leaders. He considered an impromptu trip to Britain to buck up his chief ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair. And he quietly let wavering countries know that he is even willing to give Iraq another 10 days if that would win more votes at the United Nations.
Bush has never shown much pleasure in the close-in work of negotiating diplomatic agreements. He can be impatient with the stuff he dismissively calls "nuance." Last week, he said he was tired of delays and ready for the U.N. Security Council to vote, "no matter what the whip count is.... It is time for people to show their cards."
But if a little more delay is the price of a majority, aides say, the president is willing to stretch his deadlines.
Bush has decided that the international political climate is more important to the war effort than Iraq's desert weather: An improvement in the climate is worth taking a little extra heat.
And despite his dismissal of a "whip count," squeezing out one more elusive vote was exactly what Bush had in mind, aides acknowledged, as he talked Thursday with leaders of countries ranging from Security Council allies Britain and Spain to non-council members Poland, Norway and El Salvador -- presumably hoping that the last three would weigh in with the undecideds.
Washington believes it has eight votes in hand for a resolution declaring Iraq in violation of U.N. demands for disarmament. Security Council resolutions need nine votes to pass; co-sponsors Bush and Blair would need one more country -- Mexico or Chile, the last two undecided votes on the 15-member panel.
Even if the allies win nine votes, France is expected to veto the resolution, as is Russia.
But in Bush's eyes -- and, more important, in Blair's -- a nine-vote majority could be claimed as a moral victory.
"This is all for Blair," a senior official said. Asked if that was beginning to feel frustrating, the official shook his head no. "He's been such a stand-up ally," he said.
Earlier this week, Bush aides insisted that the president's patience was running out, that a vote had to come within days, and that they had little interest in the British idea of posing specific tests for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to pass.
But after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf confirmed in a telephone call to Bush on Wednesday that he would provide vote No. 8, the Americans began sounding more flexible -- as if a ninth vote was worth bending for.
Now the Security Council might not vote until next week, the benchmarks are negotiable, and the deadline for Iraq's compliance could slip until March 28 -- although "that date holds," a White House aide insisted.
At this point, another official said, "we're sort of in waiting mode, to hear what Mexico and Chile say."
Several officials said they believe that Mexico's vote will be easier to win than Chile's. Chilean President Ricardo Lagos has exasperated the Americans and the British, "always asking for one more thing, one more thing," a diplomat said. Mexican President Vicente Fox depends more directly on U.S. goodwill on issues ranging from his nation's economic health to immigration.
But Fox's relationship with Bush, once close, has been strained. The Mexican leader was embarrassed and disappointed when the Bush administration shelved his immigration reform proposals amid post-Sept. 11 concerns over border security. And Fox does not want to be seen by his voters as knuckling under to U.S. pressure.
So the lead role in negotiating with Mexico has fallen not to the United States, Fox's giant neighbor, but to comfortably distant Britain. The British drew up their six benchmarks for Iraq specifically to address Mexico's complaint that the U.N. wasn't asking Hussein to meet specific enough targets.
Officials say that although Bush and Blair are willing to accept some postponement, they will not agree to the kind of delay -- three to six months -- that France and Russia have been demanding. Aides say that's because they are convinced that French President Jacques Chirac wants to send them down a slippery slope of procrastination that would not produce Iraqi disarmament and could instead turn into a political defeat for the Anglo-American allies.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sarcastically described France's strategy as "we've bought some time, and then we'll buy some more time, and then we'll buy some more time, and this whole thing will go away."
If Blair and Bush decide a ninth vote is out of reach, officials say, the two leaders are increasingly ready to abandon the effort for a new resolution and assert that earlier U.N. resolutions give them all the authority they need for military action.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer read aloud Thursday from a National Security Council legal opinion that the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the Persian Gulf War in 1991 could legitimize military intervention today.
"Security Council Resolution 687 declared a cease-fire but imposed several conditions," including demands that Iraq destroy its chemical and biological weapons, Fleischer read. "A material breach of those conditions removes the basis for the cease-fire and provides the legal grounds for the use of force."
The administration will also argue that Resolution 1441, passed in November, provides the legal basis for use of force against Iraq, officials said.
The sudden flurry of legal talk suggested that despite Bush's insistence last week that "we really don't need anyone's permission" to go to war, his administration desperately wants to be seen as acting within some version of international legitimacy.
The reasons are practical more than sentimental, officials said. The administration still hopes to win permission from Ankara to send U.S. troops across Turkish territory and U.S. warplanes through Turkish airspace. And it still wants more allies to join its "coalition of the willing," if only to diffuse the political costs of going to war -- and absorb the financial costs of administering Iraq afterward.
The diplomacy may still fail, officials acknowledged.
"It's really our desire to make clear that we made every effort," said one. "There's ... no harm in demonstrating to the council that we're giving it every opportunity."
Times staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.