THE ULTIMATE IRONY: France and Germany have just eliminated the last practical chance of avoiding war in Iraq.
When President Bush proclaimed that "The game is over," the French and Germans went into panic mode. They obviously are aware from their own intelligence sources that (almost) irrevocable orders have now been issued, and the U.S. countdown is underway. So they are floating a last-ditch plan under which French and German forces would lead a "peaceful" military occupation of Iraq in support of additional inspectors, as a way of staving off the U.S. invasion.
There is obviously no way that Bush will accept this gambit. He is politically and militarily committed. His Thursday speech was a de facto declaration of war, and an ultimatum to the United Nations to either get on board or be tossed into the dustbin of history.
At this point there are only two ways to stop the tanks and troops and precision bombs and cruise missiles from being launched:
1. Saddam Hussein is deposed (and killed) by a coup.
2. Saddam Hussein and his entourage flee into exile.
While neither of these were high probability options, they were not negligible either. Saddam has repeatedly purged his military forces of anyone who might be the least bit dangerous to him, but even so the remaining officers have no desire to die on his behalf. If they were absolutely certain that the Americans were invading, they could be motivated to take pre-emptive action. But there are enormous risks either way, and the odds of a successful coup remain low.
Similarly, the only thing that could conceivably convince Saddam to accept exile would be the absolutely certainty that the Americans were about to invade and would shortly kill him. Even then, given his megalomania and desire for power, exile would remain a long-shot. It definitely would not happen until the very last minute when all hope was lost.
The French and Germans could have delivered that final death blow to Saddam's hope. They could have privately sent word to Hussein that it was impossible for them to prevent or further delay U.S. military action, and therefore they were switching sides and climbing on board the U.S. bandwagon. Coupling that with a credible offer of a very cushy exile, it might barely have been enough to draw Hussein out of Iraq. France and Germany would then claim credit (and be given credit by all of Bush's foes) for negotiating a peaceful solution. Just as importantly from their perspective, they would have denied the U.S. the prestige of another successful lightning military operation, while maintaining the U.N.'s aura of authority and "relevance".
Instead, the latest French and German plan allows Saddam Hussein to cling to hope. He's already made new promises to do everything the inspectors want, including U-2 flyovers and interviews with scientists. Now he'll likely announce his "conceptual" agreement to the French and German plan. Saddam will pretend to accept anything that looks like it might postpone the invasion, because he knows it will be difficult if not impossible for the United States to rebuild momentum and support if it backs down now.
The French-German plan allows Saddam Hussein to rationalize to himself that he still has a chance to out-maneuver Bush and remain in power. And his military officers will calculate that a coup attempt is just a high-probability death sentence.
France and Germany have outsmarted themselves with all their oh-so-clever diplomatic strategies. They've just destroyed the only realistic alternatives to a U.S. invasion.
[UPDATE: I now see that Donald Rumsfield is effectively saying the same thing.]
My guess is that the person this really pisses off is Vladimir Putin. Unlike Schroeder and Chirac, Putin is not reflexively anti-American, nor is he eager to humiliate Bush. He just wants to protect Russian interests in Iraq and keep the U.S. somewhat in check. Putin was urgently trying to arrange an exile deal with Hussein, and the French-German plan has torpedoed that. Putin is a hard-headed realist, and he is now going to have to bow to the inevitability of U.S. military action. If I'm right, Russia will not sign on or even give lip service to the French-German plan, because it would just make Russia appear as impotent as them when the U.S. ignores their plan and proceeds with its invasion.
I have no doubt that diplomatic efforts are going to get more and more frantic and hysterical in the coming days, as the countdown nears zero. But war is now inevitable.