Saddam Hussein's mountain of documents now awaiting analysis by UN experts has temporarily flummoxed those in hot pursuit. It has thus bought a little more time before a final reckoning is visited upon him. He is playing a weak hand with customary tactical adroitness.
But the underlying realities have not changed. Despite seasonal injunctions to moderation by respected generals, ambassadors and bishops here, we should not allow ourselves to fall prey to the liberal illusion that, so long as no clear or present danger from Iraq is seen to threaten directly the national security of the UK or the US, international inaction is a cost-free option. The evidence of Iraq's proscribed mass weapons programmes during the 1990s was compelling. The litany of Iraq's defiance and deception of the UN over more than a decade has set a new standard of cynicism for unscrupulous world leaders. It bodes ill for law and order in the years ahead.
That said, the case for preferring pre-emptive military action against Iraq to traditional policies of containment and deterrence depends on at least four important conditions being first fulfilled. These bear on intelligence, authority, support and consistency. The record on these so far falls short of the cumulative weight needed to carry political conviction and to underpin a safe cost-benefit analysis for the use of force.
Even with maximum diligence by UN inspectors in the paperchase, it is unlikely that any breakthrough on such technical issues as the material balance for key biological agents or chemical-weapon precursors will be dramatic enough by itself to persuade public opinion at large that Saddam Hussein has once again been caught in flagrante; especially if key people or materials have meanwhile been moved out of Iraq. The supposed connection between Iraq and al-Qa'eda-type terrorism has not been demonstrated. What is needed is either a step-change in Western readiness to disclose high-grade intelligence publicly, or a major new defection, or the appearance of a well-placed Iraqi official.
Since the unanimous passing of Security Council resolution 1441, the legitimisation of any forceful international action against Iraq should Saddam Hussein remain defiant has certainly been reinforced. And there is anyway a case for saying that, since the ceasefire in resolution 687 in 1991 has been negated by the Iraqi refusal to comply fully ever since, the original authority of resolution 678 of 1990, which gave the green light to military force against Iraq, still stands.
However, support for force from a coalition of participating nations and within public opinion, both in the region itself and in the West, still looks thin. Despite having taken the issue to the UN, the US is still perceived as acting primarily in imperial mode.
There are two main ways to strengthen support for military action. The first is to define and delimit the scope of such possible action much more clearly. If the case can be built for using military force solely in order to disarm Iraq of its proscribed weapons programmes in a surgically precise way, but clearly stopping short of major invasion to secure regime change, tolerance and support would be likely to grow.
Second, the single most important factor in shifting opinion would be clear evidence that the US is using its political and financial muscle on both parties for early movement towards a just settlement in the Israel/Palestine context leading to a responsible Palestine state. Arguably, the US President has never been in a stronger position to do so. However much Americans may wish to avoid this logic, it is the factor that most inhibits domestic and international support for strong action by a US-led coalition against Iraq.
As for the British and our fellow Europeans, we would do well to avoid facile attitudinising towards the US. A strong underlying co-operation between both sides of the Atlantic is more essential than ever. As the US recovers from the shock of 9/11 and rethinks its strategic posture as the sole superpower, we should seek by every means to encourage Americans into further multilateral and collective endeavour, not risk driving them into global solipsism. This will mean compromise, understanding and prudent support, sometimes in difficult circumstances, as the price for bringing influence to bear when it matters.
Sir John Weston is a former British ambassador to the United Nations, and before that to Nato.