The growing sense that President Bush must soon make a formal decision on war with Iraq has touched off a frenzy of diplomatic maneuvering around the world. You risk a bad case of whiplash by trying to follow each day's twists and turns. Stay focused on three fixed points:
* Diplomats no less than spies are trained to throw dust in the eyes of their nation's adversaries while pretending to be helpful. They also make an art form of masking the power politics and personal ambitions that help drive even high-minded foreign policies. Bush and his team are accused of playing politics with foreign policy. They do. But they in no way have a monopoly on that practice.
* Saddam Hussein has chosen a political strategy, and not a disarmament strategy, in response to the sword the United States holds above his head. He set out to show that the American threshold for using force to disarm Iraq is different, and less legitimate, than that of Europe, Russia and China. He is close to achieving that goal; but it could be a Pyrrhic victory for the Iraqi dictator.
* Proxies are of limited value in forming a view on the decisive question: Is Iraq a serious enough threat to justify an American-led assault? Demonstrations, both pro and anti, are staged to raise funds, get television time and advance careers as well as influence opinion. A charismatic secretary of state who seemed to doves a few months ago to champion their case of nonintervention can don hawk's feathers overnight, as Colin Powell has. Do your own homework on Iraq, its dictator and history.
Ten weeks ago President Bush and Powell wrung a unanimous vote from the Security Council for tougher U.N. inspections in Iraq. They said they wanted to give diplomacy a chance to show that Iraq could be disarmed peacefully, while keeping open a military option. They appeared to be in the driver's seat of diplomacy.
Since then public opinion in Europe and Asia's key countries has mounted against the military option -- even though Iraq has offered no convincing proof that it has given up its weapons of mass destruction, as required by the U.N. resolution. To regain the initiative, Bush and Powell must now cut through the diplomatic complexities created by their own Security Council victory and by the passage of time.
A trip to Paris and Brussels this month brought home to me the obvious public opinion problems that the looming war creates for European politicians. But the journey also spotlighted a political development that is difficult to see from Washington, even though it affects the current diplomatic maneuvering: The power equation in Europe has shifted dramatically since November.
A collapse in political and economic confidence in Germany has immobilized its coalition government, now beset by increasingly open clashes between Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. In Britain, Tony Blair has to devote time and energy to quelling unease in his Cabinet and his own party over Iraq and a plethora of domestic problems.
France has recently emerged as the clear center of power and initiative in Europe, making President Jacques Chirac's government more assertive on many issues, including questioning Bush's Iraq policy.
Moreover, Chirac's energetic foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, is a man with a political future and ambitions that stretch far beyond the events of next week, when U.N. chief inspector Hans Blix will report to the Security Council and Bush will deliver his State of the Union address. De Villepin's willingness to challenge Powell at the United Nations on Monday did not go unnoticed in France.
Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, faithfully translates Blair's determination to be a "proud interventionist" against murderous regimes such as the one in Iraq. But Straw can never forget that more than 30 percent of the residents of his home district are Muslim. It is no wonder he sounded relieved earlier this month when, after talking to Powell, he announced that the odds against war had moved up to 60 percent.
After talking to Blair -- who talks to Bush rather than to Powell -- Straw went back to sounding hawkish warnings that time was running out for Iraq.
While steadfastly assembling the military might to disarm Iraq, the Bush administration has been much less successful in helping -- or pressuring -- friendly leaders abroad to explain to their own nations why Washington must act now to prevent Iraq from once more slipping out of its clear obligations to disarm. Bush's Jan. 28 speech to the nation must also be a speech to the world. Time is running out for Washington as well.