Something unexpected has happened on the way to Baghdad. When Congress left for election break, relieved leaders of the House and Senate thought they had washed their hands of the troublesome Iraq debate. With overwhelming approval from both houses for President Bush‘s resolution authorizing military action against Saddam Hussein, an invasion seemed to both its advocates and its enemies a foregone conclusion. Yet in the last two weeks, while Congress and most of the Beltway media continue to talk about war as inevitable, the Bush administration — frustrated and constrained by reluctant allies in Europe, the Middle East and even the Republican Party — has in fact been modifying its goals on an almost daily basis.

Consider that defining euphemism of the whole campaign: regime change. If Hussein “were to meet all the conditions of the United Nations, the conditions that I’ve described very clear in terms that everybody can understand, that in itself will signal the regime has changed,” President Bush said Monday. It was not the first time that top administration officials danced around the meaning of regime change, but it is notable coming from the same president who just a few months ago told reporters, “The policy of my government is the removal of Saddam.”

It‘s easy enough to see the administration’s mixed signals as a cynical and crafty attempt to neutralize and seduce critics. But events of the last two weeks suggest that the White House is feeling more genuinely constrained than the administration has let on, and it is important not to underestimate the importance of the president‘s waffling. For the moment, the president is pragmatically distancing himself from hard-liners on Iraq, to whom disarming Hussein cannot be a satisfactory outcome. To administration advisers such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, eliminating Hussein’s weapons-of-mass-destruction capacity has always been a secondary byproduct of a far more ambitious goal: redrawing the map of the Middle East with Iraq as a U.S. client, which, on an axis with Jordan and Turkey, can weaken Saudi Arabia and other Israel-hostile regimes.

Instead of advancing such goals, the administration‘s international Iraq strategy now appears locked into a series of concessions by Washington. After months of top officials deriding the U.N. and the president himself insisting that any Iraq action is authorized by existing covenants, the administration now spends weeks negotiating with France and Russia over a new Security Council resolution. After insisting that only a single resolution authorizing both weapons inspectors and military force could be acceptable, this week the administration is presenting new language that will speak only in general terms about “consequences” should Hussein block an enhanced inspections detail.

Not only does the new proposal remove that automatic trigger for military action, it also drops another key administration demand, for mandatory participation in the inspections by the U.S., cloaked in a now-abandoned clause giving Security Council members automatic membership on the inspections team.

Perhaps most significant, the administration seems to be reluctantly accepting the idea of slowing down Plan Iraq. Despite the widespread view of military planners that a major attack on Hussein could best be carried out in the early winter, the administration’s most recent draft Security Council resolution sets out a 135-day timetable for inspections and reporting — setting the clock for U.N.-authorized action back to March.

This all suggests that despite its harsh rhetoric, the administration now recognizes that it needs to buy time — and that veto-bearing Security Council members are working hard to put on the brakes. “If Bush doesn‘t decide to go ahead with the strike at Iraq within the next two or three months, there could be talk of a postponing it until next year. I don’t rule out that the closest allies of the U.S., and most of the American establishment, might well favor this option,” Sergei Karagonov, chairman of Russia‘s equivalent of the National Security Council, said last week.

The administration’s more pragmatic counselors have reasons of their own to slow down the Iraq timetable. The nightclub bombings in Bali served as a potent worldwide reminder of the imminent threat posed by al Qaeda and related terrorist mafias, and raised fears that the prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq proposed in a Pentagon planning document released last week would only foster more resentment and Islamic radicalism. Bush‘s most important ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, finds himself bogged down with a Northern Ireland peace pact collapsing in no insignificant part because of neglect from Downing Street and Washington. And the sudden revelation of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons capacity makes Bush‘s Iraq campaign look hypocritical and insincere, infuriating members of Congress left in the dark until after the Iraq-resolution vote.

The White House dance on Iraq does not mean that the prospect of war has moved to a back burner. The Pentagon’s planners are still running war simulations and drafting occupation plans; if U.N. negotiations collapse, or if Hussein boldly defies a new inspections regime, the timetable could accelerate. War remains likely. But it is not inevitable. An administration already flip-flopping on its goals could yet end up finding a way to declare victory and withdraw, settling for limited strikes rather than full-scale invasion, or delaying war still further. If nothing else, the concessions at the U.N. and the president‘s own shifting words suggest that the unease of the American electorate reflected in recent polls is resonating with pressure from abroad in significant and perhaps decisive ways.

LA Weekly