LONDON — In the ideal Middle East “dream scenario,” U.N. weapons inspectors, gently prompted by American and British intelligence information, stumble on stores of chemical and biological weapons hidden in Iraq.

At the same time, evidence presented by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell convinces all that Iraq is more deeply involved in assisting global terrorist groups than previously believed. Skepticism among the general public diminishes and the Germans, French, Russians and Chinese agree that a case has been made for action. The U.N. Security Council meets and rapidly passes a resolution to back up Resolution 1441.

Large numbers of allied troops move swiftly into the Iraqi countryside and desert areas from Kuwait in the south and Turkey in the north. Popular uprisings begin in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities. The Iraqi armed forces, faced with the imminent prospect of total incineration as 2,000 missiles rain down on every military base, barracks, defense installation and key communications centers, turn on President Saddam Hussein.

Hussein, realizing the game is up, flees to his hideaway in Mauritania. With allied troops in control, talks begin among Iraqi and Kurdish factions on forming a new democratic government in liberated Iraq. Funds pour in from around the world, including a big contribution from Japan, and the Iraqi people prosper.

The flagging reputations of U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair soar, the Bush tax cuts boost U.S. investment, oil prices fall, the U.S. economy picks up and the rising tide lifts the stagnant European and Japanese economies. Stock markets round the world rise by 20 percent as a looming recession is aborted. Far from the disaster everyone predicted, 2003 turns out to be a golden year of economic recovery and expansion.

And now for the cold shower of reality.

In real life, Hussein retains an iron grip on Iraq and shows no signs of giving up. Poor Hans Blix and his team of U.N. inspectors have found a few empty warheads but nothing in the way of “a smoking gun” to convince the world that Iraq poses an immediate danger. Public opinion in both Britain and the United States remains skeptical of the need for war.

The United Nations asks for more time for the inspectors, a position backed by Russia, China and France. The Germans will have nothing to do with U.S. war plans and call instead for a different approach: drafting tens of thousands of U.N. troops into Iraq and trebling the number of inspectors. Russia and China like this idea, which might be acceptable to Hussein. It offers the prospect of a gentle, casualty-free occupation that would leave the Iraqi dictator in power but in due course sweep his country of all weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, Bush does not like it at all because it also offers Hussein months, if not years, of opportunities for lying and “playing games.” Blair likes it even less because he is already losing control of opinion inside his own Labour Party and this could be the final straw.

Both Bush and Blair now face an agonizing dilemma. Does the U.S. ignore U.N. equivocations, and the rival French-German plan, and virtually go it alone in the next few weeks before suffocatingly hot weather makes all operations in Iraq impossible? Or does it give the inspectors yet more time, hoping something will be found to convince public opinion that war is the only way?

If more time is taken, what happens to the armies that have been assembled in the Persian Gulf at vast cost? U.S. and British contingents have many reservists. Can they be left there until the fall?

This is roughly the complex, dangerously uncertain situation that has been reached in real life. Whichever way things now go, the risks are enormous. It is quite possible that Washington’s hawks will prevail, that Blair will continue to defy his own party in London and that an invasion will start before the end of February. It could be argued that, as with World War I, the military buildup is now so massive that war cannot be stopped no matter what the politicians and statesmen may fear.

If that happens, a suicidal Hussein, in a last gasp, may unleash some hideous weapons. Public support in the West will be minimal and anti-Americanism will boil in the Middle East. Fundamentalist terrorism will acquire new momentum with horrific consequences, and even worse, extremists in Saudi Arabia could gain the upper hand, creating the very nightmares for world oil supplies that the attack on Hussein was supposed to avoid.

Oddly enough, a great deal will depend on that unpredictable animal, British public opinion, and its equally strange and unpredictable amplifier, the British Parliament, which in times of crisis comes to life and ceases to be a government-dominated rubber stamp.

Armed with the determined backing from London, America will act and the gamble could pay off. Something much nearer to the dream scenario could then unfold. That, at any rate, must be the sustaining vision for all those who now have to carry the awesome responsibilities of the hour. As Bush’s father recognized, it is the “vision thing” that is most important.

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