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The opening volleys

Special to The Times

Allies

The U.S., Britain, and Europe in the Aftermath of the Iraq War

William Shawcross

Public Affairs: 256 pp., $20

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The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq

Christopher Scheer, Robert Scheer and Lakshmi Chaudhry

Akashic and Seven Stories: 176 pp., $9.95 paper

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Secrets and Lies

Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After

Dilip Hiro

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Nation Books: 512 pp., $14.95 paper

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THE U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have ignited so much confusion, controversy and cant that myriad books are sure to descend upon us for many years, all promising to shed light on the morass. Here are three of the first, all very different.

The most surprising is “Allies: The U.S., Britain, and Europe in the Aftermath of the Iraq War” by William Shawcross, a British journalist who established himself in 1979 with the publication of “Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia,” an attack on U.S. intervention in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

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The intervention in Iraq does not bother him at all. In fact, he hails President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and their allies as “courageous in their determination finally to confront a regime that was an intolerable burden to its own people and an unacceptable affront to the world.” If you view the invasion as a misguided adventure, as I do, yet admire Shawcross enormously, as I do, the book may make you feel like the little boy in front of Shoeless Joe Jackson.

The book is argued with great coherence. Shawcross weaves the sins of Saddam Hussein -- the threat of weapons of mass destruction, the supposed ties with Al Qaeda, the defiance of the U.N., the brutal tyranny -- in an almost seamless brief that demands the removal of a monstrous, terribly dangerous evil. He argues a far better case than Bush or his lieutenants ever managed to do. His is so well drawn that anyone opposed to the adventure must come to terms with this brief.

It is, however, flawed by subtle flights of logic. Shawcross makes a strong argument that governments have the right to respond with preemptive attacks to any immediate threat in this post-Sept. 11 era. Though there was no evidence of an immediate threat of weapons of mass destruction, he writes that there is “irrefutable evidence that Hussein’s WMD ambitions were an inevitable threat” -- as if the change of wording does not matter. Yet the chasm between an immediate threat and an inevitable one is enormous.

He concedes that the case for a link between Hussein and Al Qaeda is weak, but says Hussein’s “presumptive” possession of WMD in a world threatened by Al Qaeda terrorists “theoretically ... offered Saddam ... a way to attack the United States by proxy....” “Prudent policymakers simply could not ignore the fact that Saddam and Osama bin Laden shared a hatred of the United States.” That syllogism -- Hussein hates America, Bin Laden hates America, therefore Hussein and Bin Laden are logically linked -- is surely a stretch.

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Shawcross concludes that April 9, the day Baghdad fell, “marked the removal of one of the most vile regimes in modern history. It could not have been done any other way.” This sentiment is echoed often by Bush administration officials. When all other arguments falter, they accuse their critics of wanting to keep Hussein in power. The implication is that toppling the tyrant was all that mattered. But Congress, U.S. public opinion and the British government would surely not have accepted war if stomping out tyranny were the only reason advanced. Would removing an unthreatening regime, however vile, have seemed worth sacrificing more than 500 U.S. lives and killing thousands of Iraqis at a cost of more than $160 billion?

Shawcross chastises the United States as “woefully unprepared” for the problems of occupation but warns against a precipitous withdrawal. “Unless America and its allies prevail,” he says, “Iraq will become a vast playground for terrorist activity, a far more dangerous haven than Afghanistan used to be.”

Shawcross is too experienced in the Third World to parrot Bush’s improbable promise of an Iraq leading a wave of democracy in the Middle East. Instead, he hopes only for “a reasonable regime” with “a more decent order in Baghdad.” That will surely demand a great deal of insight, sensitivity, hard work and help from other nations to achieve.

In “The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq,” Robert and Christopher Scheer and Lakshmi Chaudhry show the astonishing extent of frenetic distortion in the marketing of the war. Robert Scheer is a longtime liberal columnist for the Los Angeles Times, while his son Christopher and Chaudhry are on the editorial staff of the online magazine AlterNet.org. Bush’s “five biggest lies,” the authors say, are his assertions (1) that Hussein’s Iraq was linked to Al Qaeda, (2) that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons that threatened America, (3) that Iraq would soon have the means to build and deliver a nuclear bomb, (4) that occupation would be a “cakewalk” and (5) that Iraq could be transformed into a democratic model for the Middle East.

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The authors insist, “when we say lies, we mean lies. We are not here dealing with misconceptions, overblown rhetoric, government spin, political games, or any of the other euphemisms that have come to excuse official chicanery as business-as-usual.” This insistence lends a shrill tone to the book; many statements by Bush and his lieutenants seem to stem more from stupidity and gullibility than from mendacity. I think that they really did believe, for example, that occupation would be a cakewalk. They surely expected to find weapons of mass destruction in a defeated Iraq. But there is no doubt that they exaggerated their beliefs and expectations to sway public opinion. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace pointed out in a recent report, “administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat” by “routinely dropping caveats, probabilities, and expressions of uncertainty present in intelligence assessments from public statements.” There is no doubt, moreover, that the relentless drive to bolster their case sometimes carried them to leaps of fancy. Without citing any convincing evidence of a tie between Iraq and Al Qaeda, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney asserted in September that the invasion has “struck a major blow right at the heart of the ... geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.”

“Secrets and Lies: Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ and After” by Dilip Hiro is sprawling and untidy, but those traits reflect the war itself, and he has managed to put together an extraordinary account of confusing events. Hiro, an Indian-born, London-based journalist with wide experience in the Middle East, writes for various British and U.S. newspapers and magazines, including the Nation, whose book division published the work. Hiro regards the U.S. invasion as “an illegal adventure” that overthrew an authoritarian but secular regime that had squelched Islamist extremists within its borders. “So, by overthrowing Saddam’s regime despite opposition from Muslims worldwide and most of the international community,” he writes, “Bush and Blair ended up abetting Islamic terrorism, not combating it....”

Hiro never suppresses his feelings, yet the book does not seem strident or polemical. It is more narrative than argument. Drawing heavily on mainstream British and American news reporting and on his own knowledge of the area, he has fashioned a well-rounded, thought-provoking story about the Bush administration’s bellicose preparations, the invasion and the postwar headaches. Hiro guides the reader through the story slowly, pausing to offer illuminating sketches of such characters and institutions as Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi and the Al Jazeera television network based in Qatar.

There are nuggets of fresh information. I had no idea, for example, that many Al Jazeera news reporters were former British Broadcasting Corp. employees who lost their jobs in 1996 when a Saudi prince, angered by BBC reporting about Saudi Arabia, canceled his television station’s contract with the BBC’s Arabic service. Although Hiro admires the ease with which the U.S. military broke the back of the Iraqi army, he is scathing in his condemnation of U.S. and British television for their failure to report the full story of Iraqi civilian casualties. Both, he says, portrayed the war “largely as a grand fireworks display and tank parade interspersed with news conferences....” By contrast, Hiro says, "[T]he Arab networks showed Iraqi suffering, humiliation and panic.”

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A quote in an Israeli newspaper intrigues Hiro. Former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas told other Palestinians, according to a document obtained by the newspaper Haaretz, that Bush confided to him at the summit in Jordan last June, “God told me to strike at Al Qaeda, and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did.” Hiro cites this as evidence that Bush based the decision to go to war on gut feeling, which, he says, “implies a failure to give proper weight to history, experience, and rational thought, and to think through a complex problem. It also implies hasty action.”

Hiro contends that Bush decided to go to war in March 2002 -- a year before the invasion -- then used every argument,however far-fetched, to hoodwink Congress, the U.S. public and some of our allies. His scenario is more persuasive than Shawcross’ portrayal of an idealistic president, powered by intellectual argument, striding forth courageously to rid the world of evil.


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