It was puzzling, at first, that Dick Cheney would be chatting up Tim Russert and Bob Schieffer hours before whatever he said would be overshadowed by his boss's summit in the Azores.

Why, after all, extract the vice president from his undisclosed location as a mere warm-up act for the Bush-Blair-Aznar gathering?

One possible explanation: There's no point in saving Cheney (and Colin Powell, who appeared on Fox, ABC and CNN) for next Sunday, when the bombs could be dropping.

The press usually treats these international summits with dramatic flourishes, but this time it was pretty much depicted as a charade rather than a last stab at averting war in Iraq.

"Intended to show the three leaders' willingness to explore alternatives before Bush authorizes military action," said the New York Times.

"To allow Bush and Blair to appear to be making a final effort at peace," said The Washington Post.

So why stage the Azores production at all? Why not have a video conference? Bush, after all, made clear he's ready to begin moving the troops shortly after today's vote or non-vote in the United Nations.

The answer struck us as the three leaders held their flag-bedecked televised news conference: It was for the pictures. After weeks of getting hammered in the press about the French, German and Russian opposition, about antiwar marches around the world, America, Britain and Spain wanted the full-color image of these allies standing shoulder to shoulder.

After six months of stop-and-start diplomacy, this does look like the final days.

Hans Blix says he doesn't regard the Bush-Blair edict as an ultimatum. What planet is he inhabiting at the moment?

Now that we're on the brink, some of the press coverage has turned negative, or at least more skeptical. This could prove to be a blip, for if the war starts, journalists will be focusing not on whether we should be toppling Saddam but the plight of our fighting men and women. The media spotlight will shift from the U.N. reporters to the 500 embedded correspondents chronicling the military's progress. For the moment, though, some questions about the Bush buildup are looming large.

On two facing pages in yesterday's Washington Post were these headlines: "U.S. Risks Isolation, Breakdown Of Old Alliances in Case of War." "Striking Iraq Could Fuel Further Attacks on U.S." "Economic Costs Could Weaken Bush Politically."

Or look at the latest dispatches from three New York Times columnists. Maureen Dowd: http://nytimes.com/2003/03/16/opinion/16DOWD.html

"Everyone thinks the Bush diplomacy on Iraq is a wreck. It isn't. It's a success because it was never meant to succeed. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The Bush hawks never intended to give peace a chance. They intended to give pre-emption a chance."

Paul Krugman: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/14/opinion/14KRUG.html

"There's a long list of pundits who previously supported Bush's policy on Iraq but have publicly changed their minds. None of them quarrel with the goal; who wouldn't want to see Saddam Hussein overthrown? But they are finally realizing that Mr. Bush is the wrong man to do the job. And more people than you would think -- including a fair number of people in the Treasury Department, the State Department and, yes, the Pentagon -- don't just question the competence of Mr. Bush and his inner circle; they believe that America's leadership has lost touch with reality.

"If that sounds harsh, consider the debacle of recent diplomacy -- a debacle brought on by awesome arrogance and a vastly inflated sense of self-importance."

Tom Friedman: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/16/opinion/16FRIE.html

"For 18 months all we've been doing is exporting our fears to the world. Virtually all of Mr. Bush's speeches are about how we're going to protect ourselves and whom we're going to hit next. America as a beacon of optimism -- America as the world's chief carpenter, not just cop -- is gone. We need a little less John Wayne and a little more J.F.K."

(Friedman, by the way, is branching into cable documentaries, as you could read in our regular Monday column in The Washington Post.) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A35654-2003Mar16.html

The Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/iraq/world/la-fg-watershed16mar16,1,4255581.story?coll=la%2Dhome%2Dheadlines meanwhile, has this sobering summation of America's sinking stock on foreign exchanges:

"On what looks like the eve of war in Iraq, there is evidence of a vast gap between the way the United States and the rest of the world view the crisis.

"What Americans see largely as a campaign to eliminate one Middle Eastern dictator -- Saddam Hussein -- is viewed by many in Europe and especially the Arab world as nothing less than a watershed in global affairs.

"They worry that America's self-declared right to launch preemptive wars, its willingness to dismiss the United Nations, to shuck allies and make plans to invade and occupy another country -- all amid talk of remaking the Mideast -- are the beginning of the end of the post-World War II order and the start of an American Imperium.

"Indeed, for a growing number of observers outside the United States, the central issue in the crisis is no longer Iraq or Hussein. It is America and how to deal with its disproportionate strength as a world power. What the Bush administration describes as a war of liberation is widely seen abroad -- even by those who condemn the Iraqi president -- as a war of occupation."

Newsweek has a similar cover story titled "Why America Scares the World." The other newsweeklies are also suiting up for action, Time with "When Mom Goes to War" and U.S. News with "Ready to Go."

As for the Azores get-together, everyone gets the message, starting with USA Today:http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2003-03-16-bush-azores_x.htm

"President Bush, calling Monday a 'moment of truth for the world,' demanded yesterday that the United Nations Security Council decide today whether to give Saddam Hussein an ultimatum to disarm. He made clear that he'll quickly order an invasion of Iraq whether the U.N. agrees or not. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The president could deliver a speech that would give Saddam a final ultimatum as soon as tonight, administration officials said. If he does, war likely would begin this week, they said."

The New York Times: http://nytimes.com/2003/03/17/international/middleeast/17ASSE.html "By giving the United Nations exactly 24 hours to approve the forcible disarmament of Iraq, President Bush and his supporters on the United Nations Security Council presented a stark choice today to the deeply divided world body: Join a preventive war, or stand aside. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The only question remaining is when he will make that decision formal, with a speech to the nation, a warning to weapons inspectors and others to evacuate Iraq, and the long-awaited order to Gen. Tommy Franks to strike."

The Boston Globe: http://boston.com/dailyglobe2/076/nation/Messages_all_suggest_start_of_war_imminent+.shtm "At a time when every word is scrutinized for meaning, Bush's language strongly suggested he is ready for war. The president said Hussein had the choice to disarm and 'didn't.' The president could have said 'hasn't,' which would have implied that Hussein still has a chance to disarm."

The Times of London http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-613593,00.html strikes the same note:

"The world stands on the brink of war today after President Bush and Tony Blair decided to allow just 24 more hours for diplomacy over Iraq. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. The summit paved the way for one of the biggest military onslaughts since the Second World War."

Newsweek http://www.msnbc.com/news/885957.asp?0dm=-137K has some interesting comments from the secretary of state:

"Powell makes no apologies for leading the administration into six months of U.N. wrangling and what his critics have called the inspections trap. 'Now lots of people call me "the reluctant warrior" or "the dove." And I say fine,' he tells NEWSWEEK as he opens his jacket to thrust out his chest. 'Would you like to tattoo it on me? I don't mind. I've seen war, I've been in war, I've led men in battle. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. I don't have to demonstrate my toughness or my credentials to anyone.'"

The Washington Times http://washingtontimes.com/national/20030317-32874750.htm finds an unusual pro-war group:

"While most Arab-American advocacy groups, joined by many liberals and a smattering of conservatives, vehemently protest military action in Iraq, several groups of Iraqi-Americans are waging a war of their own -- a war of words against those very protesters.

"Their fellow Middle Easterners and their antiwar allies are misguided, says Muhannad Eshaiker, an Irvine, Calif., architect and a member of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, one of a number of groups favoring liberation of Iraq. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"A letter last week from 11 prominent Iraqi-Americans to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice urges the Bush administration to discount the loud and insistent domestic protests against the war."

Here's a confidence-inspiring report from the Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0303170178mar17,1,1713037.story?coll=chi%2Dnewsnationworld%2Dhed

"The computer system intended to track international students as part of the nation's stepped-up security routinely loses sensitive information about foreign students and faculty, according to university officials throughout the country.

"Gaffes in the approximately $36 million Student and Exchange Visitor Information System--or SEVIS-- also have left schools unable to print documents that international students and visiting scholars need to obtain visas, delaying their entry into the country."

Does the Pentagon have a nasty surprise in store for journalists? Some Brits think so, as Fintan Dunne http://www.gulufuture.com/news/kate_adie030310.htm reports:

"The Pentagon has threatened to fire on the satellite uplink positions of independent journalists in Iraq, according to veteran BBC war correspondent, Kate Adie. In an interview with Irish radio, Ms. Adie said that questioned about the consequences of such potentially fatal actions, a senior Pentagon officer had said: 'Who cares. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. They've been warned.'

"According to Ms. Adie, who twelve years ago covered the last Gulf War, the Pentagon attitude is: 'entirely hostile to the the free spread of information.'

"'I am enormously pessimistic of the chance of decent on-the-spot reporting, as the war occurs,' she told Irish national broadcaster, Tom McGurk on the RTE1 Radio 'Sunday Show.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Another guest on the show, war author Phillip Knightley, reported that the Pentagon has also threatened they: 'may find it necessary to bomb areas in which war correspondents are attempting to report from the Iraqi side.'"

InstaPundit Glenn Reynolds http://64.247.33.250/ finds the argument a tad disingenuous:

"What makes these people think that they're entitled to immunity from what's going on around them in a battle zone? To an anti-radiation missile, a journalist's satellite uplink looks just like a military communications facility. Saying that the Pentagon is 'threatening to kill independent journalists' who insist on operating one during a war is like saying the Pentagon is 'threatening to kill' people by warning them that if they drive around in tanks, wearing Iraqi uniforms, they might be shot at during an attack. Duh.

"My question is, do people who don't know the difference, or who know it and deliberately obscure it, deserve to be called 'journalists' at all? Even if they work for the BBC? And my answer is 'no.'"

Salon's http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2003/03/14/war/index.html Michelle Goldberg examines the future of the dissident movement:

"If bombs start falling on Iraq, peace activists say, expect insurgency at home.

"Demonstrators are planning to shut down San Francisco's Financial District, to gather by the thousands in New York's Times Square and stage sit-ins in Washington, D.C. Others are ready to try to breach security at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California, where many of the military targeting operations will be done for an Iraq bombing campaign. They're going not just to protest, but to interfere. 'We have the possibility of disrupting operations that feed directly into the Iraq war in a limited but very real way,' says Peter Lumsdaine, coordinator of the Military Globalization Project, the group that's organizing the Vandenberg action.

"Until now, most of the big antiwar demonstrations, especially in the United States, have been peaceful, preplanned, law-abiding events. Permits have been secured, routes mapped, and stages set up. The next phase in the antiwar movement is likely to be far more spontaneous and chaotic. Frustrated by a government they say is ignoring their voice, galvanized by the imminence of war, activists are moving from protest to direct action. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Paul Berman, author of the recent book 'Terror and Liberalism,' is a veteran of the '60s peace movement and an opponent of the Bush administration, but he believes no good can come of war opponents rampaging through the streets. 'This is just going to create a real crisis within the country,' he says. 'It's a completely destructive thing to do.'"

This may not be the best time for popping off by uninformed celebs, as the Washington Times http://washingtontimes.com/national/20030316-24182798.htm reports:

"It is a cautionary tale during wartime: Tolerance for cheeky celebrities is getting low indeed.

"Just ask the Dixie Chicks, who quickly discovered their timing was off -- and that country music fans want to keep the country in their music. "The lead singer of the popular girl group ruffled fans' feathers last Monday when she stopped wailing about menfolk in song long enough to deliver political commentary on President Bush. 'Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,' Natalie Maines told a London audience -- which roared its approval.

"Miss Maines issued a public apology to Mr. Bush Saturday for being 'disrespectful.' And no wonder. When news of her criticism reached the United States, country music fans took down their shootin' irons and went to war. Some immediately called for a boycott of the Dixie Chicks."

The war may be too hot to handle on the Democratic campaign trail, if this Boston Globe http://boston.com/dailyglobe2/075/nation/Facing_antiwar_push_in_Calif_Kerry_is_sparing_in_remarks+.shtml piece is any indication:

"He was introduced as a military hero, but Senator John F. Kerry largely avoided the subject of Iraq during a speech this weekend to the California Democratic Party. The tactic highlighted a war's potential ramifications in this politically important state where the Vietnam peace movement flowered.

"The Massachusetts Democrat, a presidential contender and supporter of a congressional resolution authorizing military force in Iraq, spent less than two minutes on the issue during a 27-minute speech to delegates attending the party's annual convention. His remarks were so spare Kerry never even uttered the word 'Iraq.'"

Their country may be on the brink of war, but London's Sunday Mirror is still wedded to its old fixation, who in effect speaks to us from the grave:

"Princess Diana made a sensational secret video diary in which she complained that Charles had an 'unhealthy relationship' with top aide Michael Fawcett, the Sunday Mirror http://www.sundaymirror.co.uk/news/news/page.cfm?objectid=12740992&method=full&siteid=106694 can reveal.

"Diana, looking tearful and drawn, complains on camera: 'He is too close to Fawcett -- what can one do when your husband is in an unhealthy relationship' with a servant?

"She also tells how Charles and his close aide appeared 'uncomfortable' and 'uneasy' after being disturbed while together in one of the Prince's private rooms.The existence of the videos, in which Diana sat alone with the camera, emerged Saturday night. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Looking straight into the camera she says: 'I feel completely isolated.'"

Who needs Iraq when the tabloids still have Di?

Finally, just to show that we're always out hunting for news, even on Sunday, we chatted up Michael Jordan yesterday. Well, actually, we stood real close to him at a press conference at a Bethesda bowling alley. Well, actually, we were just trying to take the kids bowling and stumbled onto the event.

It was a fundraiser for a charity for underprivileged kids organized by Jordan, with all the Washington Wizards in attendance, and celebs ranging from Spike Lee to Tim Russert, fresh off his deposition of Cheney. Asked about his bowling prowess, MJ said: "I don't bowl. I sit back and I coordinate. My hands are too big, I can't find the balls, my knees hurt." But he assured us he gets on his teammates when they throw gutter balls.

Then he disappeared inside, followed by a small herd with cameras and microphones.