The White House is indicating it could be flexible on the wording of a new U.N. resolution on Iraq. Intense negotiations are going on in private and the Bush administration is saying little in public.
President Bush has been spending most of his time this week out of the public eye. Spokesman Ari Fleischer says he is involved in an intense behind-the-scenes effort to win support for the Iraq resolution.
"We are indeed in the final stages of diplomacy. And in these final stages, the president is going the extra mile," he said. "That extra mile will come to an end and the time for diplomacy will come to an end. The only question that will remain is: has Saddam Hussein disarmed?"
But how best to disarm the Iraqi leader remains a divisive issue for the security council. The resolution now before the body calls for a March 17 deadline for Iraq to comply with disarmament demands. Nine of the 15 council members must approve the resolution in order for it to pass. And even if it does, two of the five permanent members, France and Russia, have warned they are prepared to vote "no" and block the measure.
The White House and its allies are looking for ways to make the resolution more palatable to council members. But they say it must maintain the threat of serious consequences if Iraq does not disarm peacefully.
Britain has come up with a set of conditions for disarmament. Mr. Fleischer says President Bush appreciates the British ideas. But the White House spokesman will not comment on specifics, saying discussions on the matter are evolving.
"This is a multi-party process. And the president's judgment is the best way to handle this from an effective diplomatic point of view is to maintain the privacy of specific discussions and to see what the outcome is," he said.
Mr. Fleischer says it is a bit of an overstatement to say the president is personally negotiating the content of the resolution. He says Mr. Bush is focusing on "the big picture" and leaving the details to others.
All the same, the president is spending a great deal of his time on the telephone with foreign heads of state and government discussing Iraq. In one period on Wednesday morning alone, calls were placed to the leaders of the Philippines, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
The White House spokesman was asked if the United States will call for a vote even if it is evident the resolution will be vetoed by Russia or France.
"This is a process that began in September when the president went to the security council. This is a test of the security council, no matter what the outcome," he said.
Mr. Fleischer noted President Bush has always said a second resolution is not needed, but added the president realizes U.S. friends and allies want one to clear the council. The White House spokesman said he could not predict the outcome, saying it will only become clear when the 15 council members sit down and actually vote.