In auto racing, officials wave a white flag at the beginning of the final lap. It's unlikely anyone will want to do that when the U.N.security council assembles Friday to hear reports from their chief weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohammed el Baradei, about the progress they've made during their inspections in Iraq. No, a white flag would imply surrender and what's needed at the U.N. is simply for someone to blink (even if it might be interpreted as surrender).
At this point in the diplomatic phase the Bush administration doesn't have much talking left in them. Yes, Secretary of State Colin Powell will join other foreign ministers in New York to hear about Iraq's latest attempts to satisfy U.N. demands - and prevent war - but it's already clear they have not done enough to convince the U.S., the U K and some others that there is any way to avoid military action as the "serious consequence" they should face for not actively and completely cooperating with inspectors.
Powell and others will have their say in a private session after the inspectors give their report in public. France and Germany may argue that the inspectors should be given still more time and perhaps a few more inspectors. Powell told Congress this week that he would be asking them "how much more time, and how many more inspectors." Saddam Hussein, Powell said, has had enough time and has shown no inclination to really cooperate with inspectors.
"We are reaching a moment of truth as to the relevance of the Security Council to impose its will on a nation such as Iraq," Powell said on Capital Hill.
Soon after the inspectors' report, perhaps early next week, the Bush administration will put forth another resolution - it would be the 18th concerning Iraq since the end of the Gulf War - that would be the last diplomatic attempt to prevent war. Officials say such a resolution would be short, perhaps just a few paragraphs and the wording is still being discussed in Washington and London.
Neither Powell nor the President thinks the debate would take anything like the seven and a half weeks that was spent on the last resolution. Most administration officials are convinced the Iraqis will ignore it, assuming the council gives its approval, just as they have all the ones that preceded it.
In other words, the view from Washington is that diplomacy - and Saddam Hussein - has been given a last chance and, as Powell put it, "…sometimes it's necessary to go to war."
Blix and el Baradei will be walking a fine line because they have to accurately report the current level of Iraq's cooperation, which is good on process but not on substance, and yet indicate what appears to be more Iraqi cooperation in recent weeks.
Russia, France and China, each of whom has veto power, and Germany, which currently chairs the Security Council but has no veto, will be hard sells for President Bush and Secretary Powell. One side or the other will have to blink in the coming days at the U.N. or Mr. Bush will have to go to war without U.N. approval.
With so many important countries yet to be persuaded, it will take all of Mr. Powell's persuasive powers and diplomatic skills to get the Security Council to pass an acceptable resolution. Not an impossible task, but clearly a daunting one.
No matter the outcome of the debate at the U.N., when the diplomatic dust settles in New York, there is every likelihood the dust in the Iraqi desert will begin to be stirred, by American bombs, tank treads and boots. Only after that dust has settled will the debate about the relevance of the U.N. resume.
By Charles M. Wolfson