BY THE END of last week, months' worth of Bush administration talk about Iraq had been reduced, really, to one talking point: Time is running out.

Senior administration officials had spent a good deal of time debating their public relations strategy for this past week. They had in mind a significant build-up to the important prewar trifecta coming up--the report from U.N. inspectors on the status of Saddam Hussein's disarmament on Monday, the president's State of the Union address on Tuesday, and the week-long discussion at the U.N. Security Council of whether to use force in Iraq. According to several sources, the president himself decided on the language of that final talking point and may even have revealed some pride of authorship when he spoke to reporters last Tuesday.

"He's not disarming," Bush said. "He's giving people the runaround. And, as many of my advisers said on TV this week, time is running out."

That wasn't the message Hans Blix wanted to hear. Earlier this month, the chief U.N. weapons inspector spoke of "containment" and said publicly that his January 27 progress report would be the beginning, not the end, of his evaluation of Iraqi disarmament. His nuclear counterpart, Mohammed el-Baradei, said he would need months to complete his inspections. By mid-January, the world was talking about a second report this spring and inspections throughout the summer.

That all ended last week with an administration-wide campaign to persuade the world that Saddam Hussein must be disarmed. The world wasn't persuaded. Before the effort had even begun in earnest (it was set to kick off with a speech from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on Tuesday), French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin signaled that his country wasn't on board.

Villepin's announcement came last Monday at the U.N., and it was widely viewed within the Bush administration as a setup. The meeting was supposed to have been a relatively routine discussion of terrorism among U.N. representatives from member nations. But the French asked for and received a "ministerial"--diplomat-speak for a meeting among the top foreign policy officials from each country.

Secretary of State Colin Powell showed up expecting little in the way of fireworks when Villepin uncorked his surprise: The French want more time for inspectors and will not support the disarming of Saddam Hussein by force. "Nothing justifies cutting off inspections to enter into war and uncertainty." While the timing of Villepin's announcement might have been unexpected, its substance couldn't have come as a complete shock. The French have long carried Iraq's water on the Security Council, and for several years have hinted that they would like to see an end to sanctions. And in 1999, after the first U.N. inspection team (UNSCOM) was disbanded because of Iraqi intransigence, France even refused to vote in favor of creating the new, dramatically weaker inspection regime (UNMOVIC) now roaming the Iraqi desert.

According to an aide, Powell was "livid" after the episode Monday. He berated Villepin by telephone on Tuesday, in what Powell diplomatically called "a candid and honest forthright exchange of views." His public comments were more reserved. "I did not know that Minister de Villepin was going to go out and sort of let his press conference get totally devoted to this," he said. "Unfortunately, it overwhelmed what the purpose of the conference was all about and so it might have been better for the French to have not focused it that way."

If the original plan was to convince Saddam Hussein and our would-be allies that "time is running out," that message took on greater urgency after the dust-up with France. Armitage gave a strong speech documenting the Iraqi regime's "apparatus of lies." Powell, in an interview with several regional newspapers, was resolute. "The question isn't, how much longer do you need for inspections to work," he declared. "Inspections do not work." Still, Powell publicly held out hope that the French could be swayed to endorse a war to disarm Saddam Hussein, and other administration officials privately said the same thing.

On Wednesday, President Bush implicitly challenged the French, who had been joined in their skepticism by the Germans, Russians, and Chinese. He used the language of U.N. Resolution 1441, approved by all four, which promised "serious consequences" for continued Iraqi noncompliance. "And should that path be forced upon us, there will be serious consequences. There will be serious consequences for the dictator of Iraq. And there will be serious consequences for any general soldier who were to use weapons on our troops or on innocent lives."

By Thursday, however, no one in the Bush administration entertained any illusion that the French and the others were serious about those consequences. That afternoon, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. The speech, "What Disarmament Looks Like," contrasted past successful disarmament efforts with the decade of Iraqi deception. The second half of his speech read like a bulleted list of Iraqi noncompliance and was the strongest case against Saddam made by an administration official since President Bush's address to the U.N. General Assembly.

At the same time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Powell went to Capitol Hill to share intelligence on Iraq with the Senate. The administration officials consulted with senators, and at one point asked their views about what intelligence should be made available to the public. Sources say the briefing involved intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and ties between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda.

Some of that intelligence is likely to end up in the State of the Union on Tuesday. The president will use that speech to begin to make the case for war in Iraq, administration officials say, but he will wait until after the Security Council meetings later in the week to finish it.

Few, if any, of the administration officials who deal with Iraq now believe war can be avoided. Perhaps the clearest indication of American intentions came last week when President Bush warned Iraqi soldiers against fighting for Saddam. "Should any Iraqi officer or soldier receive an order from Saddam Hussein or his sons or any of the killers who occupy the high levels of their government," the president said, "my advice is don't follow that order."

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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