Bernard Ingham: Rocky Mountain summit as Saddam made his move

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TWENTY-FIVE years ago this Sunday was the day war broke out. I remember it well. I was in Aspen, Colorado. I had not intended to be because I had booked a holiday on the Continent. In any case Margaret Thatcher’s visit to the Rockies was a “swan” – merely to address the Aspen Institute on international affairs.

Then, a week before she was due to fly out, the IRA blew up her faithful former Parliamentary Private Secretary, Ian Gow. This was getting a bit close to home. Somewhat morbidly, I thought I had better join the party.

We checked into the Little Nell Hotel and then went for a ride up a mountain to admire the views.

When we came down we had unconfirmed reports that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. Little Nell had seen nothing like it before. It became an international operations centre in an instant.

In one of the telephone calls, President George Bush Senior declared his intention to come to Aspen to consult with Mrs Thatcher. Along with the president’s Press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, I attended their meeting in the ranch house belonging to the US ambassador to the UK, Henry Catto, about 8,000ft up in the mountains.

There was not so much as a whisker between them in agreeing that Saddam had to be removed from Kuwait. But there was a presentational problem. There, invariably was when Mrs Thatcher appeared on a joint platform.

Bush, in his hesitant way, said they were in accord, condemned the “naked aggression” and hoped for a peaceful withdrawal of Iraqi forces that restored the Kuwaiti leaders. In contrast, Thatcher was all flashing eyes and outrage, last seen when Argentina invaded the Falklands. In fact, she borrowed a Falklands thought in condemning the invasion as “totally unacceptable”.

“If it were allowed to endure”, she said, “then there would be many other small countries that could never feel safe”. She added that if the Iraqi withdrawal was not swiftly forthcoming, “we have to consider the next step. The fundamental question is whether the nations of the world have the collective will effectively to see that the Security Council resolution is upheld”.

Months of diplomacy, sanctions and preparations for war ensued to stop the ambitious Saddam from getting his blackmailing hands on Saudi Arabia’s oilfields and then collecting more fossil fuel riches as he swept down the Gulf. Then Mrs Thatcher was dumped by her party, four months before Saddam was expelled from Kuwait. It was left to John Major and Bush to prosecute the war for which she had done so much to prepare.

If Mrs Thatcher had lasted, I think we can be pretty certain that Tony Blair would not have had to cobble together reasons for deposing Saddam. Nor would we now be waiting endlessly for the Chilcot report to pronounce on his and his government’s behaviour over the justification for the botched demise of the dictator.

I say this because in her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, Thatcher wrote: “The failure to disarm Saddam Hussein and to follow through the victory so that he was publicly humiliated in the eyes of his subjects and Islamic neighbours was a mistake that stemmed from the excessive emphasis placed right from the start on international consensus.”

It is true that Thatcher’s problem was easier than Blair’s in that Saddam had perpetrated outright aggression against a neighbour. It was much more difficult for Blair to establish a justification for war when the best he had to go on was the danger the Iraqi dictator posed in the Middle East. Hence the suspicions of dirty work at the crossroads over intelligence interpretation.

But one thing is clear: Iraq is no longer the powder keg of the Middle East. It is being regularly blown up by terrorists, partly occupied by Islam in its most evil form and, along with Syria, the focus for allied attempts to exterminate the threat to world peace posed by the so-called Islamic State.

Several questions hang over all this. Would the Middle East be a safer place with Saddam still conducting his domestic reign of terror? Alternatively, would the Middle East be a safer place if the allies had later removed him without apparently much thought for the consequences? It cannot be said that his toppling has been a success, given the sheer carnage that has ensued.

Aspen teaches me that it was a thousand pities Thatcher was dumped by her party. Had she remained Prime Minister, Saddam would not have survived to get Blair into hot water.