Bush's Napoleon Moment: Bush could have brought democracy to Iraq but instead, he opted for war

Crossroads crop up in history as they do in personal lives. With hindsight, one can see that if the leader of a powerful nation had taken one road instead of the other, he would have shaped history differently. Napoleon's invasion of Russia was one such example.

In recent times, President Bush reached a crossroads as he ratcheted up pressure on Saddam Hussein in early 2003, by assembling a massive military force in the Gulf region.

The leaders of France and Germany disagreed with Bush. As president of a country that could veto resolutions by the UN security council, Jacques Chirac was in a strong position to dissuade Bush from invading Iraq while UN inspectors were still investigating for any signs of weapons of mass destruction.

In one of his telephone conversations in early February 2003, Chirac reportedly said to Bush: "You have won because under your military pressure, Saddam has allowed UN inspectors to go anywhere they want." He then suggested that the security council should give UN inspectors 120 days to complete their mission and submit their report. Bush rejected Chirac's proposal.

As it was, Bush's military build-up had made Saddam uncommonly pliable. In mid-February, his personal envoy sought out and met Richard Perle, the guru of the American neoconservatives, in London. In return for the US refraining from invading Iraq, Saddam would make the following concessions, he told Perle:

AC/a,!AC/ Saddam would allow up to 200 CIA and FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agents to go anywhere in Iraq to look for WMD.

AC/a,!AC/ He would give oil concessions to the American petroleum corporations.

AC/a,!AC/ He would go along with any agreement the Palestinians signed with Israel.

AC/a,!AC/ He would hold multi-party elections in Iraq under the UN aegis within two years.

On his return to the US, Perle conveyed Saddam's message to the top officials of the Bush administration. They replied with an impossible demand: that Saddam must step down first before they would discuss his offer.

The Bush White House should have taken the offer seriously, and bargained about the timing of the multi-party election under UN auspices. It should have squeezed Saddam to agree to an such a poll within, say, six months. To ensure his compliance, Bush should have kept most of the American troops in the region since Saddam responded only to force or threat of force.

Such an exercise would not have been ideal. But it would have set Iraq on to a path to electoral politics.

While the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party was the dominant political force in Iraq, at one time it was part of the broader Progressive National Front, which included not only the Communist Party and the Arab nationalist Nasserites, but also a small Kurdish party - all of them secular.

In the changed environment, the underground religious parties like the Iraqi Islamic Party and Dawa would have been allowed to participate in the elections. But they would have faced stiff competition from secular groups more focused on the issues of economic and political liberalisation than sectarian animosity, which has dominated post-Saddam Iraq under US occupation.

This alternative scenario would have saved Iraq from splitting along Sunni-Shia lines, and spared Iraqis the catastrophic trauma they have endured since the Anglo-American invasion launched exactly five years ago.