LAJES, Azores Islands -- Setting the stage for war, President Bush issued a bold ultimatum to the United Nations yesterday, saying that it must act today to authorize military action against Iraq or Bush would shut the door on diplomacy.
"Tomorrow is a moment of truth for the world," the president said after a brief summit yesterday in the Azores with the leaders of Britain and Spain.
The message of Bush's deadline for U.N. action is that he is on the cusp, perhaps within days or even hours, of making a final decision to take the nation to war without U.N. backing. Reports indicated that the president plans to deliver a major speech to the nation this week, possibly as early as tonight.
In the meantime, Bush and his summit partners were said to be engaged in a flurry of last-minute telephone calls to other U.N. Security Council members. But hopes were dim for approval of a resolution that would satisfy the president. Bush has insisted that previous U.N. resolutions provide all the authorization he needs to invade Iraq.
The three summit leaders -- Bush and Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain -- did not say whether they would withdraw their resolution if it appeared doomed to fail in the Security Council. But the president hinted that he might pull it.
Sounding testy at times during an afternoon news conference, Bush did not hide his exasperation with France, which has vowed to veto any resolution that would trigger war if Iraq fails to disarm.
"It's an old Texas expression: 'Show your cards' when you're playing poker," Bush said. "France showed their cards. After I said what I said, they said they were going to veto anything that held [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] to account. So cards have been played. And we'll just have to take an assessment after tomorrow to determine what that card meant."
Some Bush administration officials held out the slim possibility that the president would agree to an amended resolution, extending diplomacy for a period of days to allow Hussein to show that he is complying.
However, one White House aide said Bush had flatly rejected a French proposal to give Hussein 30 more days to disarm. "The diplomatic process will end tomorrow," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Given the near impossibility that Iraq could show credible disarmament soon, Bush signaled that Hussein could avoid war only by going immediately into exile.
The president said the Iraqi leader "got to decide whether he was going to disarm, and he didn't." Now, Bush said, "he can decide whether he wants to leave the country."
Aides have said that once Bush declares diplomacy over, he will deliver an address to the nation, explaining his rationale for war and giving Hussein one last chance to leave Iraq and go into exile. Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who rarely travels with the president, flew with him aboard Air Force One yesterday.
The Azores summit
At the summit, Bush conferred with Blair and Aznar, as well as with Prime Minister Jose Durao Barroso of Portugal, who served as host. Those U.S. allies, who support Bush's confrontation with Iraq, huddled with him at an air base on a small island 900 miles west of Portugal, in the quiet solitude of the eastern Atlantic Ocean.
The summit, which allowed for less than two hours of discussion, seemed designed in part to show that the leaders of the three nations pushing for a U.N. resolution to authorize the use of force against Iraq still hope to avoid war.
It gave Bush the chance to stand beside European leaders who support his stance, allowing him to show that the views of the heads of state in France and Germany, fierce opponents of an Iraq war, do not represent those of the entire continent.
The meeting also sought to shift attention from the United Nations, where sharp resistance to the U.S.-backed resolution has led Hussein to claim that Bush is so obsessed with invading his country that he would defy opposition from around the world.
For Blair and Aznar, the summit served to illustrate Bush's willingness to turn to the United Nations one final time, even if the gesture turns out to be mostly symbolic. Opposition to war in Britain and Spain is overwhelming, and it is crucial for both leaders to persuade their citizens that they have made every last attempt to find a peaceful solution.
'Every possible effort'
Almost pleadingly, Aznar said yesterday that he had traveled to the Azores "after having made every possible effort, after having made this effort, continuing to make this effort ... for international law to be respected and for U.N. resolutions to be respected."
Blair called for "a final round of contacts" among world leaders "to see whether there is a way through this impasse." The British prime minister did not repeat Bush's ultimatum that the United Nations act by today, but he said, "We are in the final stages because, after 12 years of failing to disarm him, now is the time when we have to decide."
The president's demand of the Security Council is simple -- that it pass, no later than today, a U.S.-sponsored resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq if Hussein refuses to disarm. The resolution's deadline for Iraq to comply, originally set for today, would have to be extended.
A majority of the Security Council appears unlikely to support the resolution, however, and France and Russia have threatened to use their power as permanent council members to veto it.
Yesterday, Blair and Bush seemed to preview an argument that they could make if the United Nations fails to act. They suggested that France's early threat to veto any resolution that includes an authorization for war made it hard for other council members to compromise -- and perhaps sent Hussein a message that the world community was hopelessly divided.
Blair complained about nations that "say there should be no ultimatum, no authorization of force in any new U.N. resolution." Had Hussein been given a "strong and unified message" early, he said, he "might have realized that the games had to stop."
After the summit, Blair said British diplomats would lobby all night to try to persuade France not to veto a war resolution.
Opinion and support
Though a majority of Americans say in opinion polls that they would support a military invasion to disarm Iraq, world public opinion is sharply against war.
Thus far, only Britain and Australia have offered combat troops for an invasion of Iraq. Spain and Portugal, and a handful of other countries such as Bulgaria, Italy and Japan, have expressed support for Bush and have promised to be involved in other ways.
Even as the summit was taking place, more than 200,000 U.S. troops were standing by in the Persian Gulf region, awaiting orders to attack Iraq.
The summit leaders met at the Top of the Rock, an officers club that overlooks the Lajes airfield. They then spoke to reporters, delivering opening statements and agreeing to take only one question from each nation's corps of journalists.
The military installation here is located on the most populated island in this remote, volcanic chain controlled by Portugal. But under an agreement with the U.S. government, about 2,000 Air Force and other military personnel are stationed here.
The installation serves as a crucial refueling station for the U.S. military. During the Persian Gulf war in 1991, and during U.S.-led bombing raids in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, scores of combat fighters stopped in the Azores to refuel.
At a time when rifts are deepening between the United States and some of its traditional allies, such as France and Germany, Blair and Aznar called for a concerted effort to re-establish close cooperation between Europe and the United States.
Perhaps as a concession to his European allies, whose constituencies value international cooperation, Bush said that even if the Security Council does not act today to authorize military force, he would return to the United Nations to seek resolutions so that member nations would be involved in rebuilding Iraq after a war.
"All of us," the president said, "need to step back and try to figure out how to make the U.N., work better. If we use military force in the post-Saddam Iraq, the U.N. will definitely need to have a role. That way, it can begin to get its legs of responsibility back."
'A small chance'
Portugal's prime minister, sounding like a determined optimist, said the Azores were the perfect setting for the summit because the islands lie between America and Europe, underscoring "the beautiful meaning of our friendship."
He said the meeting in his country had marked "the last opportunity for a political solution" to the Iraq crisis.
"Maybe it's a small chance, a small possibility," Barroso said. "But even if its one in one million, it is always worth fighting for."