The Bush administration yesterday seized on the mixed verdict delivered by U.N. weapons inspectors as vital evidence in its campaign to restrain Iraq. Much of the rest of the world, by contrast, viewed the report as essential to a broad effort to restrain the United States.
French, Russian, Chinese and other diplomats asserted that the report, far from showing Iraqi duplicity as U.S. officials insisted, demonstrated that no clear-cut case for action exists. "The job has not been completed . . . and more time is needed," said China's deputy U.N. ambassador, Zhang Yishan.
The growing divide between the United States and key members of the U.N. Security Council over how to handle Iraq is rooted in a growing distrust around the globe over the intentions and aims of the world's last remaining superpower. Many foreign officials increasingly worry that, despite official U.S. disclaimers, President Bush is determined to rush into a war timed for the best climate for fighting, instead of displaying a genuine commitment to disarming Iraq peacefully.
These differences -- which had been papered over in a resolution passed two months ago demanding Iraqi compliance -- are now complicating the administration's diplomacy. Among some senior U.S. officials, there is a temptation to dare France and Russia, two veto-holding skeptics of military action, to veto a second resolution mandating military action. That is a risky strategy, envoys said, because the unspoken rule of U.N. diplomacy is never offer a resolution that does not have the votes for passage.
The administration must also balance its long-term interests against the desire to quickly confront Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The United States doesn't need many allies to win a war, but it requires them for the costly peace afterward. Even Bush's closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will arrive in Washington on Friday for consultations, laid down war conditions over the weekend that appear tougher than those the administration has contemplated.
"I don't believe it will take them months to find out whether he is cooperating or not, but they should have whatever time they need," Blair said. He added that he could foresee military action without a second resolution only if such a resolution were vetoed despite a clear report from inspectors that Iraq was not cooperating.
The makeup of the Security Council this year -- with the inclusion of such opponents of military action as Germany and Pakistan -- will make it more difficult to achieve consensus than during the debate on Resolution 1441 last year. Still, U.S. officials would like an agreement that would give Iraq a short time to fully cooperate with weapons inspectors before any strike is ordered.
Judging from commentaries and opinion polls, there is little support for a U.S.-led war among much of the rest of the world, including Britain. Time Europe has been running an unscientific Internet poll asking which country is the greatest threat to world peace. Of the more than 300,000 participants, 84 percent picked the United States, compared with 8.6 percent for Iraq and 7.5 percent for North Korea.
In the administration, "there is an underlying frustration that people are doubting U.S. credibility on this issue," said Lee Feinstein, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. But he said the Bush administration has acted unilaterally so often on other international matters that, overseas, it has frittered away much of its claim to use it this time.
"The principle to act alone is essential," Feinstein said. "The problem is that the Bush administration's tactics have undercut the principle of unilateral action. It hurts them when they need it."
In a speech Sunday before an international gathering of business and foreign leaders in Davos, Switzerland, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell tried to address the growing doubts about the United States. "Trust is a crucial commodity," he said, and he acknowledged that many at the session had questioned "whether America can be trusted to use its enormous political, economic and, above all, military power wisely and fairly."
"I believe -- no, I know with all of my heart -- that the United States can," Powell said. He cited numerous examples in history -- in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Kuwait and Europe after World War II -- when he said the United States liberated a nation and then sought no special favors or domination in return.
Turning the tables around, Powell noted, "Today, not a single nation, not one, trusts Saddam and his regime."
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, speaking last week before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, was also asked about trust, with one audience member noting that the United States had said "trust us" during the Vietnam War, and "it turned out to be untrustworthy."
Wolfowitz replied: "I must say I sort of find it astonishing that the issue is whether you can trust the U.S. government. The real issue is, can you trust Saddam Hussein?"
Administration officials said that in the coming weeks they will begin to declassify certain intelligence about Iraqi behavior to build support for military action. James M. Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the Bush administration can also exploit fears of some Security Council members that unilateral action would make the United Nations irrelevant.
"All permanent members know that if Washington carries through with its threat, it will be a deathblow to the Security Council," Lindsay said. "Washington will give them a difficult choice: Do you want to save Saddam or save the Security Council?"