- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004


By William Shawcross

Public Affairs, $20, 272 pages

It is increasingly hard to recall as the partisan battle lines harden in this presidential election year, but the question of whether to go to war in Iraq never really broke down along neat divisions of left and right.

Many of President Bush’s libertarian supporters harbored serious doubts about both the war and the sweeping rationale behind it. On the left, meanwhile, old-line liberals such as Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens argued vociferously for the justice of the war, if not for the same reasons advanced by Paul Wolfowitz.

One more reminder that things weren’t so simple as they now appear comes in the form of “Allies: The U.S., Britain, Europe, and the War in Iraq,” by veteran British journalist William Shawcross.

Mr. Shawcross first burst into the public eye with his book “Sideshow,” a stinging and unforgiving account of the Nixon administration’s incursion into Cambodia in pursuit of North Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War. “Cambodia was not a mistake; it was a crime,” Mr. Shawcross famously concluded. “The world is diminished by the experience.”

It might be expected that “Allies” would come to a similar conclusion, but in fact Mr. Shawcross wholeheartedly supports the war in Iraq. If the Bush and Blair campaign strategists are looking for a little support in the coming intellectual debate over the wisdom of the war, Mr. Shawcross is their man.

Truth be told, however, “Allies” is more an interesting book than a good one. The author relies heavily on secondary sources and gives Messrs. Bush and Blair the benefit of virtually every doubt. By the book’s own evidence, the author appears to have done almost no original research, save for an e-mail from an acquaintance in Iraq and an on-the-fly interview with U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer.

The book draws heavily on the usual media suspects, and anyone who followed the war diligently in the prestige media, from the New York TimesandtheLondon Guardian to the Financial Times and the Economist, will learn little from this account of the war and its aftermath.

Mr. Shawcross believes strongly that the United States and Britain were right (and even more strongly that France was wrong) on whether to confront Saddam Hussein. His book reads less like a meditation on the difficult prewar debate than a prosecutor’s brief in support of military action.

“Retreat in the face of the [French opposition to the war] would have presented greater risks,” Mr. Shawcross concludes.

“It would have left Saddam triumphant, all the more able to terrorize his own people and threaten the region. American power would have been immeasurably weakened … It would have made the United Nations redundant … It would have sent a message to all rogue states — let alone the other two members of the ‘axis of evil,’ Iran and North Korea — that there was actually nothing to stop them from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

The final chapters of the book take into glancing account the postwar difficulties and the failure to date to uncover massive arsenals of unconventional weapons in Iraq, but Mr. Shawcross is not swayed: “As in the twentieth century, so in the twenty-first, only America has the power and the optimism to defend the international community against what really are the forces of darkness.”

The most interesting question raised by the book is: How does one get from “Sideshow” in 1979 to “Allies” in 2004?

For Mr. Shawcross, the route passed through the killing fields of Rwanda and the Balkans, when it was Western inaction that allowed the buckets of blood to flow, not any nefarious plan hatched at the White House or 10 Downing Street.

In Kosovo, two years before the great September 11 divide, it was liberals and a Democratic administration arguingforhumanitarian intervention, trampling the sovereign rights of Yugoslavia in order to save the lives of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Iraq is, clearly, a whole ‘nother story, and there’s a Republican in the White House these days, but Mr. Shawcross and liberals such asMr.BermanandMr. Hitchens are being true to their principles. “Allies” may not be a great book, but it is one of the first published on the Iraq war that is totally faithful to itself.

David R. Sands is chief diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Times.

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