WHAT if the war on Iraq had never happened? What if America and Britain had stepped up to the brink last March, peered over the edge, only to pull back at the very last moment?
Let's say George Bush had been persuaded to give the United Nations inspectors what they wanted: more time.
The British and American soldiers had been told to stand by; the bombs had stayed in their bays.
How different would our world have been? Whose lives would be better, whose worse? Who would still be here, and who would have gone?
Start at the obvious place: Iraq itself.
That statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad's Paradise Square would still be standing, as tall and imposing as ever - and no one would know that, on the inside, it was completely hollow.
The people of Iraq would still be living under Saddam's murderous tyranny.
Those who dared to speak out would lose their tongues, if not their lives.
But the electricity would still be working, and so would the running water and sewers.
There would be no freedom, no marches in the street, no rallies at the mosques. But there would be order.
Those who kept their heads down and their mouths shut could at least count on life's basic services.
The country would be under dictatorship, but not anarchy.
Iraq's National Museum would still contain its priceless collection of mankind's oldest treasures, remnants from the very birth of civilization.
No looters would have broken the glass cases and hauled off Baghdad's ancient wonders for sale on the international market.
THE United Nations building in the capital would still be intact, along with the Jordanian Embassy and the Imam Ali shrine at Najaf, one of Islam's holiest sites.
The UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello would still be alive and so would Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, the leader Iraq's Shi'ites revered more than any other.
The country would not be a magnet for radical Islamist terrorists, said to be flocking from across the Arab world to take shots at the great American infidel: there would be no US occupation to "resist".
Saddam would still be in charge, cracking down on any hint of al-Qaeda activity within his borders - regarding the organization as a threat to his own rule.
Hans Blix would still be around, irritating his Iraqi hosts with his daily requests to snoop and probe every factory and laboratory in the country.
The Iraqis would bob and weave, of course, but with the threat of force hanging over them, they would co-operate, no matter how grudgingly.
Whatever program Saddam once had to devise weapons of mass destruction would now be on hold: thanks to Blix, Saddam couldn't organize a fireworks display, let alone build a nuke, without the world knowing about it. His hands would be tied.
The United Nations would declare that the beast of Baghdad was not dead - but firmly locked in his cage.
In the United States, the landscape would look just as different. George Bush would have shocked his right wing by giving in to the people they regard as whining, limp-wristed, European pinkos. By going through the UN, and delaying war, he would have broken the go-it-alone, gung-ho stance that is holy writ for muscular Republicans.
ONE of that faction - say, Congressman Tom "The Hammer" DeLay - would now be preparing to challenge Bush for the Republican nomination in next year's presidential election.
Donald Rumsfeld would have resigned, along with all the civilian hawks that rule America's defense department. The hardline vice-president Dick Cheney would have quit, too, citing "ill health".
The new star of the administration would be the man who always wanted to give diplomacy more time, the Secretary of State Colin Powell.
He would not be planning to quit next year, as he is now, but lining up to serve as vice-president in the next Bush team. Powell and Bush would be hailed as statesmen everywhere but on the American right. French shopkeepers would hang posters of Bush in the window: bravo to the man who stopped war.
In Britain, impersonators would no longer cast the American president as a simpleton with a monkey walk: he would be hailed as a man of reason and restraint, the greatest US leader since John F Kennedy.
Public opinion in the US would be right behind him, with the polls steady rather than sliding, as they are now.
AMERICANS would have been cheered to see the resources now in Iraq directed instead against al-Qaeda.
With Baghdad safely contained, the US would have concentrated all its might on the hunt for Osama bin-Laden. International allies, anxious to reward Washington for its moderation on Iraq, would have given unprecedented levels of co-operation, leading to success after success in the real war on terror - the campaign to find and capture the killers of al-Qaeda.
Who knows, Bin-Laden himself might be behind bars by now.
If he were, Bush's re-election in 2004 would be safe - with none of those daily headlines about US casualties in Iraq to threaten it. And here in Britain, Tony Blair would look a different man. His determination to stay close to Bush would have paid off: he could claim credit for holding back the US president and averting war. In Europe, he would be a lion among leaders, at the heart of the European Union at last.
By now, he would be launching the Yes campaign for a referendum on the euro.
"Trust me," he could say, and no one would laugh in his face.
AFTER all, he had not gone to war on false pretences. Instead, he had stuck to his word. He had always said that he would be reluctant to go to war without UN backing and - since that backing never came - he had kept the troops at home.
He would style himself as a leader strong enough to influence the world's sole superpower, but humble enough to listen to his people.
They had opposed a war on Iraq, and their voices had been heard.
The Conservatives would be itching to brand him weak - "He threatened force and chickened out" - but they would not find it easy.
After all, if Blair had been weak, then so had Bush - and no Tory wants to badmouth a Republican president.
Iain Duncan Smith wouldn't know what to say.
Blair would be cruising towards a third election victory and all IDS could do is watch.
Alastair Campbell would have gone six months ago.
With no Iraq crisis to manage, he could have quit at a time of his choosing.
By now his diaries would be in the shops, just in time to be a big hit at the Labour party conference later this month.
There, Blair would be feted by activists who had learned to fall in love with their leader all over again.
Lord Hutton would be in his study, poring over law books, weighing up grave, but obscure cases - and almost nobody would have heard of him.
DAVID Kelly would have been announced as a senior member of Hans Blix's on-going inspection team in Iraq, applying his phenomenal expertise to the task of keeping Saddam's hands out of the WMD jar.
After that stint, he would have confidently looked forward to his reward. Most people would not know his name, but those who did would know it as Sir David Kelly.
And somewhere in West Yorkshire, 32-year-old Samantha Roberts would be preparing for a weekend at home with her husband, Steven.
The sergeant from the Royal Tank Regiment would not have been killed at Al Zubayr while trying to calm a civilian riot on the fifth day of the conflict in March.
Tomorrow he would be tinkering with the car or maybe watching a game of rugby.
With autumn underway, maybe he and Samantha would be making plans for Christmas.
But that's not how things turned out, is it?
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist
for The Guardian
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