WASHINGTON – President Bush and Saddam Hussein are trying to outmaneuver each other with strategies that turn with events and play to world opinion. Bush hopes to bolster his weakened hand with a show of unity from Congress.
"The president laid down the gauntlet at the United Nations and Saddam responded. Let the games begin," said Judith Kipper, director of Mideast programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Knocked off balance by Saddam's promise to admit weapons inspectors, Bush is trying to regain his footing by pushing harder for war resolutions in Congress and at the United Nations. The administration's anti-Saddam rhetoric is on the rise, too, and Bush plans to inject himself into behind-the-scenes negotiations with wavering allies.
In the runup to a congressional vote, White House officials are also considering ways to display a sense of unity behind Bush's plans to confront Iraq. One event under consideration would have Bush sharing a stage next week with Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
His strategy is to convince world leaders that the United States will disarm Iraq, likely with force, and it's in their best interest to stand with him.
"We must and we will take whatever steps necessary to defend our freedom and our country," Vice President Dick Cheney told GOP donors in Connecticut.
Bush had seemed to rally world leaders last week when he warned of "grave and gathering dangers" and told the United Nations to help rid Iraq of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
He also demanded that Saddam stop supporting terrorism, persecuting minorities, trading oil illegally for other goods and account for a U.S. pilot and soldiers from other nations missing since the Persian Gulf War. Bush advisers said military action was the likely consequence if Iraq did not comply.
Then Saddam made his play.
In a letter to the U.N., the Iraqi government said it would accept the return of weapons inspectors nearly four years after they had been forced out. Suddenly, the debate shifted from Bush's broad demands to the narrow and complicated issue of admitting weapons inspectors.
Wary allies found their chance to avoid the confrontation sought by Bush. Russia, France and Arab nations said the U.N. resolution sought by Bush is no longer needed, even as Bush called the Iraqi offer a ruse.
White House officials insist that France has quietly promised to back Bush in the end. Russia is bargaining for a seat at the table -- and access to Iraqi oil -- after Saddam is deposed, officials said on condition of anonymity.
But Kipper said Saddam has managed to derail Bush's plans for a quick confrontation and military action early next year, when it is still cool enough in Iraq for U.S. troops to wear gear protecting them from chemical and biological weapons.
Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who is former chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said, "The way out of Bush's box is to remain flexible, to just proceed vigorously on the diplomatic track at the U.N. and at the same time get inspectors in their as quickly as possible."
Indeed, Bush is in a hurry.
U.S. and British diplomats have begun writing a U.N. resolution aimed at authorizing the use of force should Baghdad fail to comply with past U.N. resolutions on disarming.
It is not clear whether the new resolution will detail all of Bush's demands, but he will proceed with plans against Saddam regardless of what the U.N. does, senior advisers said.
With the White House's blessing, British Prime Minister Tony Blair plans to release a detailed indictment on Saddam's regime next week.
Bush himself meets Friday with Russia's foreign and defense ministers in a bid to soften Moscow's opposition to confronting Iraq.
Meanwhile, the White House plans to send lawmakers its proposed congressional resolution Thursday. It will give Bush maximum flexibility to confront Saddam, with force if necessary, aides said.
"It's an important signal for the world to see that this country is united," Bush said Wednesday in a meeting with congressional leaders.
Democratic lawmakers, some of whom had questioned Bush's motives, now predict the resolution will pass Congress as early as the first week of October.
"I think this is an important moment for our country and for the international community to work together," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
With the GOP-led House poised to back Bush, Daschle was under pressure to allow a vote -- or face accusations of hindering the war on terrorism in the final weeks before an election.
Few Democrats want to stand in Bush's way. Several polls have seen his job approval jump from the low 60s to the low 70s and public approval of his policy on Iraq has grown.