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Dramatic Turns of History - 13 June 2003

I wonder how many writers have, at one time or another, been struck by the wonderful possibilities of a book called If...

Every politician, every soldier, certainly every historian has wondered what a different and dramatic turn history might have taken "if only".

Years and years ago I put together six titles of "if onlys" before I found there had been down one century at least a score of books bearing the title.

What if John Kennedy's hair's breadth presidential victory - what was it, a bare 120,000 votes in 60 million - had gone the other way for Nixon?

If Hitler had invaded England a week or two after the retreat from Dunkirk, would the whole country - as Churchill later believed - have been conquered in two weeks?

My own researches when young made me take a frankly prurient interest in the question: if Napoleon had kept his date with the Countess Waleska would he have won the Battle of Austerlitz?

All these questions tumbled out when, the other morning, putting one and one together, I dared to wonder where would we be with Iraq if President Clinton had not run into Monica Lewinsky.

This, believe me, is an entirely serious question and it will do us no harm to recall something that I think most people have forgotten - shall we say the popular history of America's relations with Iraq, which for all but foreign policy buffs began with Saddam's sudden invasion of Kuwait, a small state at the head of the Persian Gulf.

It had been for a long time a British protectorate but Kuwaitis insisted on and achieved their independence.

But the country's geography at the hub of the oil-rich Gulf was against its continuing existence as a prosperous little neutral.

Saddam Hussein had ached for years to realise his claim that Kuwait was, always had been and should be a province of Iraq.

But what is called negotiation got nowhere and, after Saddam had won his eight-year war against Iran, his ambition to be king of Arabia and the nemesis of the state of Israel was not to be foiled by this upstart rich little country in the south.

At the beginning of August 1990 Saddam invaded and overran Kuwait and seized its great cluster of precious oil fields.

Almost four months later, after Saddam had rejected the United Nations' order to withdraw, the Security Council authorised the use of force and 29 member nations formed a coalition and gathered in Saudi Arabia, with President Bush the First praying that negotiations - again - would resolve the trouble. That was in November.

For two months President Bush was hesitant to act but Mrs Thatcher happened to be in this country at the time and was reported to have quoted Napoleon: "If you're going to take Vienna, take Vienna."

In the middle of January 1991 President Bush jumped to it. The Americans, British, French and Saudis started an air attack on Iraq and at the end of February launched a ground war with half a million men.

Saddam was routed but burned hundreds of oil wells before retreating north.

There was a ceasefire and six weeks later a truce in which Saddam promised - now the plot begins - to renounce all claims to Kuwait, to pay reparations and to destroy all chemical, nuclear and biological weapons.

Why this new, strange prohibition? Because he'd used them in the Iranian war.

He must also allow a UN peacekeeping force for an indefinite stay. By that time everybody close to the United Nations, except it seemed the foreign offices of the western countries, knew that a UN peacekeeping force was so small, so lightly armed, that they could do little but act as standby police, soon to be brushed aside and shot at by the rebels they were supposed to be subduing.

Now we're at the spring of 1991 and people began to forget about Saddam in the excitement of a new presidential election.

A year later, 1992, Iraq was not even a backburner issue to a new, young, Democrat president - Clinton, who overthrew President Bush, even though he had emerged from the Gulf War with a 90% approval rating.

Mr Clinton had his priorities - to reduce the nation's appalling deficit, which he went on about eloquently in public.

And two concerns which were very much private matters to be shared only with the FBI, the CIA and, in time, with Britain's comparable MI5 and MI6.

Mr Clinton had not been long in the White House before he began to pay special attention to random bombings around the world, many directed at American embassies and military bases and - most shockingly at the time - the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, eight years before the suicide bombers destroyed it.

President Clinton, the CIA and the Pentagon soon decided there was nothing random about these accidents - bombings, suicides.

Eight years ago he set up, but of course he didn't publicise, a counter-terrorist unit of the CIA and, for American matters, a branch of the FBI.

While this intelligence probing was going on around the world and while, incidentally, the CIA lost the lives of quite a few of its agents, there appeared a character and an organisation you and I wouldn't hear about for another eight, nine years. The character was Osama bin Laden and the outfit was al-Qaeda.

These things constituted a private presidential burden of concern on top of all the public, domestic and foreign issues of the day.

There was one other concern - the anxiety over which was well publicised and more and more riled President Clinton. The issue was called Saddam Hussein.

The United Nations, starting in 1991, began to send into Iraq, according to the terms of the truce, expert nuclear and biochemical scientists - eventually a team of more than 200 - to see if Saddam was living up to the promise to destroy biochemical weapons and materials and the makings of a nuclear bomb.

Iraq, as you've been told many times by now, is the size of California - it is 850 miles long and 200 miles wide.

And the inspectors had a rough time finding even the sites where such lethal stuff might be hidden, let alone a test tube of hideous poison in a ship, a truck, a mosque.

Perhaps it was a hopeless assignment from the beginning. Saddam cheerfully maintained, and his foreign UN ambassador eloquently and patiently protested, that they didn't have and never had had nuclear ambitions or biochemical weapons.

However, though there was never positive tactile evidence of a finished bomb, all the ingredients and the necessary warheads were found and reported.

And Secretary of State Powell memorably last February detailed the precise quantities in kilos or whatever of four kinds of poison such as had been sprayed on the Iranians and had come to cause the agonising death of the Kurds in northern towns.

Well the UN went on passing resolutions, ordering Saddam to unlock the doors, to lead us to the hidden material and he went on denying that any such deception had been practised.

It was now up to President Clinton, as the super member of the United Nations, to throw up his hands, say "OK, Saddam, you win" and do nothing.

That has always been the alternative to war or to continuous United Nations inspection till doomsday.

So President Clinton and the Pentagon prepared to give Saddam an ultimatum and threaten him with an invasion if he did not comply.

What forces, how many allies, when and where President Clinton was ready to move we do not know. But President Clinton was about to anticipate the later steps of George W Bush.

Then there emerged from the woodwork the awful news of the president's squalid affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Then and throughout his impeachment trial, which he survived by a tiny margin of votes, William Jefferson Clinton did not have the moral authority to shoot a pop gun at Saddam or make a moral case against anybody foreign or domestic.

But if - IF - that had not happened and without all the preliminary graces of the Congressional vote of approval and the concurrence of the UN Security Council, IF he'd gone into Iraq after the abandoned goal of dethroning Saddam, where would we be now?

It's anybody's guess. It's my own that, considering the state of military technology, the actual war would have lasted no longer than the penetration bomb made possible.

But I fear also that the huge expense and the military strength necessary to restoring peace to an oppressed people who'd known nothing but tyrants would have been as unforeseen and unplanned for as we see now.

Even so Baghdad today looks like a prosperous city compared with Berlin for two or three years after the Second World War.

We never could see then the shell of a city, the encompassing misery of a whole population living outdoors - for luckily there was no television in those days.

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