WASHINGTON -- An expected United Nations endorsement of military force to rout Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait would strengthen President Bush's freedom to launch an offensive and pressure Congress to give him similar authorization, according to a senior administration official.
"What the U.N. resolution will make perfectly clear is that [Mr. Bush's] range of options remains full," the official said. Such U.N. action would exert "a lot more pressure" on Congress to provide the president with authorization to use force if and when he deemed it necessary, the official added.
The difficulty of holding together both international resolve and public support will increase after the new year, the official says, once as many as 200,000 troops join U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.
And members of Congress are naive in thinking both could hold for a year or more to allow economic sanctions alone to wear Mr. Hussein down, he says.
"These guys think it's a piece of cake to keep the international consensus together," the official said. "They're not having to do it. It's stuck together with Scotch tape."
Even among countries that have dispatched troops to the region, there are divisions on how long to wait before going to war. Countries such as Egypt, described as having "the most blood on the line," favor waiting, although Arab officials say President Hosni Mubarak remains committed to sending forces to liberate Kuwait.
In a recent approach, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with apparent U.S. backing, have signaled to Mr. Hussein that they would not seek to destroy Iraq militarily if it withdrew from Kuwait, despite its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
The U.S. public's tolerance for keeping hundreds of thousands of troops in or near Saudi Arabia will hold out until "March or April, maybe," a senior administration official predicts.
The likelihood of a Security Council use-of-force resolution was expected to advance yesterday as a result of Secretary of State James A. Baker III's separate meetings in Geneva with the foreign ministers of the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Zaire, three African members that have been steady supporters of resolutions against Iraq.
Mr. Baker meets today with the foreign ministers of Finland, Romania, France and Britain with the evident aim of allowing President Bush, in his meeting with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, to show a lineup of both European and Third World support for a resolution.
Administration officials say the resolution is by no means assured. But Mr. Baker rarely goes public with his intentions if he does not expect to win.
The Soviets, while refusing to dispatch forces to the region, have laid the foundation for supporting such a resolution by continually insisting on action through the United Nations.
While maintaining links with Iraq's supporters in the Arab world, the Soviets clearly have cast their lot with the West, U.S. officials say.
China, another of the five permanent council members that have veto power, argues that the major powers should stay out of regional conflicts but "doesn't want to be the odd man out," an official said.
Mr. Baker's final stop in rounding up votes will be Colombia.
The administration hopes for a resolution patterned loosely on one adopted in August, which allowed members of the multinational force to enforce maritime sanctions against Iraq with only a minimal coordinating role assigned to the long-dormant U.N. Military Staff Committee.
Diplomats said some members might press for a stronger role for the staff committee, however. They might also press for language requiring an additional search for a diplomatic solution or one setting a deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait before force would be used.
U.N. diplomats say Bush administration officials, who are pressing for passage of the resolution while the United States presides over the Security Council this month, exaggerate both the U.S. procedural advantages this month and the potential pitfalls next month, when Yemen, a sometime supporter of Iraq, takes over.
Passage of a resolution this month would, however, provide a major diplomatic victory at a time when Congress holds hearings that could be a factor in shoring up public and congressional support for the administration's gulf policy.
At this point, a senior official said, various factors would have a bearing on decisions, including sanctions, the Moslem holy season of Ramadan, weather and troop rotation.
"All the time limits are artificial," the official said. While all the factors publicly cited will have a bearing in military decisions, none is a clear deadline.