LONDON, DEC. 7 -- During a long day of hard diplomacy at the U.N. Security Council a week ago Thursday and a working dinner that evening, U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III gave no hint to the foreign ministers of the other four permanent members of his plans to go to Baghdad. They only found out the next day, minutes before President Bush's announcement.
"They pulled themselves off the floor and said okay," recalled one Western diplomat. "It all came as quite a surprise."
For four months, America's allies in the Persian Gulf crisis have been alternately impressed, stunned, angered and confused by the roller coaster of conflicting signals, political calculations and emotions coming out of Washington. Now, according to European diplomats and analysts, they are more anxious than ever about the impact that growing opposition within the United States, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's decision to release the hostages and the looming Jan. 15 deadline are having on American resolve.
"At the outset of the crisis, the Americans had the political will to stop Saddam but not the military capability," said an unidentified Arab journalist cited by analysts here. "Now they have the military capability but not the political will."
The allies have been most deeply troubled by the unilateral U.S. decision to dispatch Baker to Baghdad and to invite Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz to Washington. Different allies have reacted in different ways. Analysts say the Soviets were relieved to see Washington take a diplomatic step back from the brink, the French were furious at not being consulted, while the British were surprised and fearful the move would send the wrong signal to Saddam.
All believe the move violated both the letter and spirit of their understanding with Washington that they would be consulted -- not just notified -- before a major step was taken. They also contend it violated the sense of "collectivity" of international action that Washington itself has so carefully nurtured during the crisis. And they are concerned that despite constant reassurances from Baker and other U.S. officials, the move means the administration is running scared in the face of American public opinion and growing congressional opposition to war.
To the allies, the American move was undertaken almost solely to stem what they fear is a hemorrhage of popular support in the United States. Most believe that if a representative were to be dispatched to Baghdad, the best choice would have been U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who would have spoken for the entire Security Council, not just one member, and whose mission could not be construed as a diplomatic victory by the Iraqis.
Many believe the Baker visit sends the wrong signal not only to Saddam but also to the moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt that have staunchly opposed Iraq. They contend the administration has been caught in the classic trap of seeking to please its domestic constituency -- American voters and opinion-makers -- at the expense of misleading others such as the allies, the Arab states and Saddam himself.
"What this creates is a situation where any other foreign minister may find it convenient to open his own channels to Baghdad," said Francois Heisbourg, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies here. "It breaks down what has been, up to now, a very strong discipline on the part of the allied governments. And of course, the Iraqis will try to play on the weakest links."
One measure of French anger was Foreign Minister Roland Dumas's stated willingness to go to Baghdad himself. Germany's Hans-Dietrich Genscher also reportedly is considering such a trip. But after much debate at a European Community meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels Tuesday, the two reportedly agreed to settle for an invitation to Aziz to stop off in Rome to see Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis on his way back to Baghdad from Washington.
De Michelis, whose country currently holds the EC presidency, will speak for all 12 countries and is expected to reiterate the message of "withdraw or else" that Aziz will hear in Washington.
The allies were shocked to see hawkish and respected figures such as Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and former defense secretary James Schlesinger express opposition to military action. They had been repeatedly assured by Baker, and this week by Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that fissures within American public opinion did not mean a weakening of U.S. resolve. But the sudden decision to go to Baghdad sent a far different message.
Many of their reservations center around Baker, who is highly respected as a political dealmaker but who inspires less trust when it comes to policy and ideals. "When you get done with all the wheeling and dealing, the question is what does Baker stand for, and the answer is: nobody here knows," said a former British official.
Because U.S. foreign policy is so closely held by Baker and a handful of trusted aides, with most U.S. ambassadors and State Department officials frozen out, British and French officials contend it is sometimes hard to know what Washington is up to.
British officials originally opposed the idea of a new Security Council resolution on the use of force because they believed it was legally unnecessary and diplomatically unachievable. They were surprised and impressed by Bush and Baker's skillful performance in forging a consensus behind the measure.
They are equally surprised and very disturbed that the two failed to show similar success with American public opinion. British opinion, by contrast, has largely been compliant. While a recent Gallup poll shows British respondents, like their American counterparts, would much prefer a successful economic blockade over going to war, 63 percent say they are prepared for military assault if the blockade does not work.
There is a big political difference as well. While Democrats in Washington are shifting away from the administration's position, the opposition Labor Party here has decided, largely for domestic political reasons, to support the government's hard-line stance.
British support has also been firmed by the straightforward manner in which government spokesmen ranging from former prime minister Margaret Thatcher to Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Defense Secretary Tom King have outlined policy and options. Also, the idea of going to war to back up the new international order or prop up oil sheikdoms in a part of the world once under the wing of the British empire makes much more sense to many here than it does to people in Iowa.
Still, despite occasional flashes of anger and impatience with the United States, what many Europeans fear most is that America will draw back into an isolationist shell if its bold and risky gulf strategy fails. That fear was behind Hurd's warning to Britain's European partners this week that they must contribute more both in military and diplomatic terms to help the U.S. effort, analysts said.