- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

A recent book by prominent military historians has mainstreamed "alternative history" a field that has heretofore been principally a passion for war re-enactors and others fascinated by what might have happened if, at critical moments, things had worked out differently.

The New York Times best-selling "What If" features essays by the likes of John Keegan, Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough and Arthur Waldron that consider, for example, how differently the course of human history might have been had Alexander the Great not died prematurely, had the Spanish Armada gotten past the English fireships, had the D-Day invasion failed and the Soviet Union invaded Japan as World War II wound down.

This sort of analysis makes for interesting musing about more contemporary events, as well. It is illuminating to muse about some "what if's" in current affairs that might have influenced profoundly our present circumstances if only because it may shed light on decisions still to be made.

• Let's start with an easy one: What if the first President Bush had not allowed Saddam Hussein's regime to remain in power after Operation Desert Storm? The failure to do so is now widely acknowledged by practically everyone involved to have been a strategic mistake. Just how serious a mistake it was can be seen in: the countless Iraqi lives that have been destroyed by Saddam since the Gulf war in his odious effort to build support for the ruling clique by making the United States appear responsible for postwar sanctions and his people's widespread suffering; the continuing, and growing, threat Iraq poses to its neighbors; Iraqi cooperation with and enabling of international terrorism; and the prospect that Baghdad may once again use weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The case can be made that, if the U.S. had ensured 11 years ago that the people of Iraq were liberated from the murderous tyranny of Saddam's Takriti clan, Iraq would today again be among the most prosperous and civilized nations in the Middle East. International sanctions would never have been imposed and the international community may have helped a democratic, representative government accomplish vis-a-vis Iraq's WMD programs what South Africa did when it eliminated its nuclear arsenal. At a minimum, it seems most unlikely we would be facing today an Iraqi oil embargo and the imminent prospect of resumed hostilities with Baghdad.

• How about this: What if the Taliban instead of defying the second President Bush and harboring Osama bin Laden had agreed to start what might have been called a "peace process" involving protracted negotiations with the United States or, more likely, the United Nations?

Instead of being portrayed as state sponsors of terrorism, the Taliban would have been cast as "partners for peace." Instead of being driven from power by force of American and Northern Alliance arms, the Taliban would still be brutally suppressing Afghanistan's women and oppressing the rest of its long-suffering populace.

Terror would almost certainly continue, much of it covertly aided and abetted by Mullah Omar and his friends when they were not playacting, for Western consumption, at being part of the "grand" antiterror coalition.

State Department specialists would, of course, insist the United States had no choice but to stick with the peace process, however. Mr. Powell and the CIA would insist that the U.S. keep talking to and dealing with the Taliban and adamantly oppose any Defense Department initiatives aimed at dealing with the Northern Alliance, to say nothing of taking out the Taliban, in the interest of actually waging war on Afghanistan-based terrorists.

Does this nightmare scenario sound familiar? It should. It is approximately what has been happening to Israel ever since it began an no-less-benighted "peace process" with Yasser Arafat and his equivalent of the Taliban, the Palestine Liberation Organization/Palestinian Authority.

• Which brings us to a particularly topical question: What if Mr. Arafat had accepted the deal offered to him by Ehud Barak at Camp David in the twilight of the Clinton presidency? Given what we now know about Mr. Arafat's involvement in gun-running, terror-sponsoring and incitement of his people to violence, it seems ever clearer that Mr. Arafat would simply have used the 95-plus percent of the so-called "occupied territories" the then-Israeli government was prepared to relinquish to him to pursue his abiding objective: the elimination of the Jewish State from the rest of territory he and most Arabs consider to be occupied namely, all of pre-1967 Israel.

If so, what, it might be asked, will happen if Mr. Arafat were now to get the Palestinian state President Bush has ill-advisedly committed the United States to help create? Under present and foreseeable circumstances that is, absent a wholesale change of heart by the Arab world the creation of "Palestine" will simply bring into existence yet another Islamist, terrorist-sponsoring, corruptly and despotically misruled nation committed to the destruction of Israel. The difference is that this nation would exist on territory without which Israel is essentially indefensible, giving rise for the first time since 1973 to the distinct possibility that the very existence of America's only regional democratic, and most reliable, ally could be imperilled.

That is a "what if" President Bush surely doesn't want to contemplate let alone see eventuate. If so, he would be well advised to recall Colin Powell before the secretary of state makes matters worse by pressing for a "solution" to the present Middle East crisis that shreds the coherence of the Bush doctrine in combating terrorism and further impedes the needed corrective action on Iraq.

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