WASHINGTON—The Bush administration's drive toward war with Iraq suffered a sharp setback Friday from a U.N. weapon inspectors' report that gave fresh ammunition to France and other nations that want to avoid violence and continue the inspections.
The report by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix was much more positive in tone toward Iraq than U.S. officials had expected, and it left the U.N. Security Council even more deeply divided than before over how to deal with Saddam Hussein.
President Bush now faces an unpleasant choice. He must decide whether to launch a final round of diplomacy aimed at repairing the breach with many U.S. allies and thus win broader backing for war, or to abandon the United Nations, ignore global opinion and launch an invasion with whatever allies will follow.
At stake in his decision are not only war and peace, but also the unpredictable consequences of war if he chooses it, the fate of the United Nations and the U.S. role in it, and his own case for re-election and standing in history.
The White House has been on an unannounced timetable pointing toward an invasion of Iraq in early March. It was unclear Friday whether Bush will hold to that timetable. Blix is to report again to the Security Council in early March.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an interview Friday evening with Knight Ridder, said he would return to Washington from the United Nations and consult with Bush and other senior officials about what to do next.
The U.N. process can't go on forever, with the goal of disarming Iraq sacrificed on the "altar" of proposals for new weapons inspections, more inspectors and the like, Powell said.
A decision point must be reached, he said, and "I don't think that point is too far off in the distance."
One proposal gaining currency is for the Security Council to give Saddam a deadline—much as it did in the Kuwait crisis 12 and a half years ago—to reveal everything about his weapons of mass destruction or else face the military machine confronting him.
That strategy would shift the burden of proof back to Saddam, satisfy the desire of France, Russia and others for more time and meet Bush's demand that U.N. diplomacy not be strung out without an end, proponents of the idea argue.
In his presentation, Blix said Iraqi cooperation had improved somewhat. Without actually saying so, he appeared to recommend continuing the inspections indefinitely.
Powell argued that it was time for the international community to consider making good on threats of force. But French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin was applauded for his passionate call to avoid war if disarming Iraq can be achieved by other means.
The Blix report was "a negative development from the administration's perspective," said Ivo Daalder, a foreign-affairs expert at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center in Washington.
The coalition of countries that oppose war now, including France, Germany, Russia and China, "seems to be consolidating," Daalder said. He noted that antiwar pressure on European leaders will grow this weekend from a series of massive street protests.
Bush has made clear all along that he is ready to act militarily without U.N. approval if he thinks it necessary.
But Powell said the United States had made no decision about whether to seek a new U.N. Security Council resolution or what it might say.
Friday's session could reopen a long-running debate in the Bush administration's highest councils between Powell and his allies, who favor an internationalist approach, and Bush's more hawkish advisers, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who never wanted to pursue the compromises and negotiations of U.N. diplomacy.
The United States and Britain have been drafting a brief resolution that would declare Iraq to be in "material breach" of its disarmament obligations and open the way to the use of force.
But they haven't yet decided whether to introduce it in the face of a veto threat from France and an uphill battle to secure the nine votes needed for passage in the 15-member Security Council.
A better option is to give Iraq a deadline to disarm or face "serious consequences," said Lee Feinstein, a former Clinton administration official who's now with the Council on Foreign Relations, a research center in Washington.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.