Alistair Cooke's Last Letter - 20 February 2004

Propped up there against my usual three pillows and reluctantly having just finished a favourite bed book - the collected, ribald musings of an old friend, Charles McCabe - I was feeling chipper enough to glance across at two bedside piles and hope for a perfect lullaby before drifting into sleep.

I found it on one page of a pocket reference book - a very brief history of a short war, so short, so well and briskly fought, the villain so effectively punished, the peace treaty so fair but demanding enough to put an end to any remaining fears about the war-waging villain.

It was a model of how all United Nations exploits should begin and end.

Listen, it's very short and very satisfying.

"Saddam Hussein, declaring that the Persian Gulf state of Kuwait belonged to him, sent his army into that country in August 1990.

"The UN Security Council promptly demanded his withdrawal. He paid no attention.

"In late November the Council urged the UN members who were willing, to use all means to expel Saddam.

"He ignored the UN and 29 countries volunteered to go to war."

(Note that all United Nations use of arms must be voluntary. The great weakness of the United Nations from its birth has been that it has no forces of its own, it can only ask members if they're interested and would they like to come in.)

"In January 1991, under an American general, American, French, British and Saudi aircraft bombed Saddam's strategic bases.

"He bombed in kind - firing Scud missiles into Riyadh - and the country of the non-belligerent but still the real ancient enemy, Israel.

"'Enough,' said the gallant US President - one George Bush - 'we must act'.

"Having been gingered up by the visiting Mrs Thatcher, prime minister of Britain, on the old Napoleonic principle - if you're going to take Vienna, take Vienna - the president said 'right', and directed half a million allied troops to mount a ground offensive and liberate Kuwait.

"Within six weeks Saddam had signed a ceasefire and agreed 'to destroy all his chemical, nuclear and biological weapons'."

That is the end of the fairy tale. Alas, the epilogue is sorrowful. Saddam did not give proof of obeying his ceasefire promise.

The Security Council passed a resolution ordering him to do so and threatening "serious consequences".

Twelve years and 16 threatening resolutions later, UN inspectors had found much of the condemned material but nobody was sure if he hadn't hidden more.

The UN Security Council voted to go on and pass more resolutions and offer consequences that never happened.

So what, as Shakespeare asked, is the concernancy?

The concernancy is that in February 1991, only a few days after the fairy tale had come to a happy end, a Gallup poll was taken to gauge the popularity of President Bush the first. It stood at an unprecedented 89%.

I did a talk, I remember, suggesting that even though the next presidential election was 20 months away it would save an awful lot of time, sweat and money if some constitutional way might be found to skip or abolish the presidential election of 1992.

I'm sorry to say nobody ever took me up on this. The '92 election was held and the heroic warrior king - Bush - was handsomely defeated by a nationally unknown former governor of Arkansas, a southern state which never before had been the cradle of a president.

So by one of those inscrutable, perhaps cruel turns of fate, the son of the heroic president George Bush came to play over the fairy tale of his father.

All those threatening non-performing UN resolutions had been going on all throughout the two-term presidency of Mr Clinton.

And don't think he sat back and shared the Security Council's yawn. He went on receiving lots of alarming intelligence about Iraq and Saddam's nuclear and chemical projects, was troubled by the memory of the devastating use of poison gas in Iran and Kurdistan, and must have heard the sentence attributed to one of Saddam's top advisers, but never confirmed: "Next time it'll be a chemical firestorm over Israel."

In all the 12-year concern about Saddam's intentions this fear never failed to haunt the White House - the fear of an overnight Saddam attack and either the outbreak of a whole Middle Eastern war or the death of the state of Israel.

President Clinton fretted over this problem as much as anyone and had plans to go into Iraq to enact, on his own if must be, "serious consequences", when Miss Lewinsky became a figure of fate, as significant as Napoleon's mistress, Madame Waleska.

By the time Clinton was ready to mobilise an American or allied force he didn't possess the moral authority to invade Long Island.

When George W Bush came in, there came with him a small group of advisers, at least three of them veterans of the Gulf War, who thought that at last the United States should foil the known Iraqi intentions that it feared and invade the country.

That is the beginning of the second Bush fairy tale. Under the guidance of Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld, who'd proved himself a brilliant wager of the new special services precision bombing kind of war in Afghanistan, President Bush asked him to do the same in Iraq.

And it surely was astonishing to see after only weeks the vanishing of the fourth largest army in the world, the flight of Saddam and the ever memorable toppling of his statue on to the streets of Baghdad.

End of second Bush family fairy tale.

Shortly after this swift and picturesque victory the Gallup poll measured President George W's popularity. It was at 69%.

I do not need to detail or even sketch in bulk the subsequent turmoil, religious conflict, the accursed insurgency that is so woefully successful, not only in wounding Americans and British and Spanish and Pole and Hungarians - in a word the allies - but to do even better: decimating the legions of Iraqis who gamely line up to serve as a police force.

Throughout most of the tumult in Iraq and the wholly unexpected weight and range and murderous force of the Iraqis' opposition to the allied occupation, President Bush's public approval has stayed above 60%.

But then came the fateful testimony before the Senate Arms Services Committee of David Kay - the CIA's retired chief weapons inspector.

"We got it all wrong," he said, finally driving a stake in the heart of the administration's main declared reason for going into Iraq.

"All we found," said David Kay, "and are likely to find are the relics of an abandoned chemical warfare arsenal and of a primitive nuclear programme."

Within a week of the Kay testimony the president's approval rating, for the first time since he arrived in the White House, fell below 50% - a 10-point drop after that simple sentence, "We got it all wrong."

Now if one body, one institution in the United States was more affected by that sentence than any other it was the Democratic Party.

All through the winter and the early primaries, eight Democrats fought each other on domestic issues in the hope of becoming their party's nominee by the spring.

Of course the more they fought each other the more the White House was delighted. The eight Democrats were often apart on issues.

Only one man - a doctor and former governor of Vermont - sensed the rising tide of popular feeling against the war. He galvanised the young and in all the public polls he was way ahead of the other seven.

But as a campaigner he was fickle - shooting ideas from the hip then next day reversing his stand or sorry he said that. Not the man to have his finger on the button.

In the actual primaries he was time and again a dim and distant third, and this week he joined the other dear departed.

But what President Bush's 10-point drop did to the hopeful Democrats was to let them say now, without fear, that the war was fought for a false reason, and it also generated a wholly new conviction which had little to do with the issues - the three problems which the national polls say are nationally paramount.

One: to recover the two million jobs lost during the administration. Two: reform of the healthcare system and, quite a way down, three: Iraq.

The new, invigorating party conviction is a belief the Democrats had not dreamed of so far. It is the belief that George Bush can be beaten in November.

This thought apparently took hold of the primary voters long before it dawned on the Democratic Party as a whole.

Hence the 15 out of 17 primaries won by the Massachusetts senator, John Kerry, who since the campaign's beginning has sounded an odd and lonely boast: "George Bush must be driven from the White House and I'm the man to do it."

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