In one sense this is an easy book to review. The bottom line is: if you supported the Coalition's war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, you will like the book; if you opposed the war, you will probably hate it. In either case, however, you should read it.
This is not an academic work but a one of advocacy by a well-known journalist strongly committed to the view that the war, despite its immediate and ongoing costs, was necessary in the sense of being the best of a range of not-very-satisfactory options.
The introduction contains a moving and wholly justified tribute to the late Sergio de Mello, the well-liked United Nations diplomat who was killed in a bomb attack on the UN Headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003. Australians may recall de Mello as the official who headed up the UN administration in East Timor after its liberation from Indonesian occupation. His death while doing what he did best, helping to reconstruct a destroyed country, was a great loss to the UN and to the world in general.
The main line of argument in this work will be familiar to all who are acquainted with the pre- and postwar Iraq debate. You will not find anything new here but the case is presented with clarity and vigour; it will serve well as a reference for anyone seeking to extract the key arguments. The writing is both clear and succinct; it is an easy book to read.
There is, as might be expected from a British-based writer, a strong focus on European-American issues and relations. Australians unacquainted with the intricacies of European politics may be a trifle hampered by the extent of the knowledge which Shawcross assumes in his readers. Nevertheless the case he builds remains clear. The Australian role in the build-up to war, and in the war itself, receives only bit-player status in this book. This is, of course, an accurate reflection of Australia's real importance (or lack thereof) in the affairs of the great and powerful.
It is always a temptation for a reviewer who disagrees with the central argument of a book to take up the debate, using the review to further one side of the case. I hope to avoid this trap, but it is fair to point to deficiencies in Shawcross' argument and at least one of his predictions.
Shawcross' treatment of what might be called the opposing case is perhaps questionable. Some people are reduced to caricatures - his dislike of the French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, for example, is poorly concealed (it is perhaps, too easy to dislike the French when they become notably Gallic). Shawcross also has a tendency to fall into the trap of arguing that Saddam's forcible removal was justifiable because he was a tyrant, and not because of any major security threat he may have posed. He is perhaps forced to this position by the collapse of the case built up around weapons of mass destruction, a subject on which he can only state, pre-war, that many believed Iraq possessed these in quantity.
Shawcross argues cogently that Saddam's pre-war defiance and obstruction of the UN inspections process threatened to devalue the United Nations as an institution - to drain it of credibility. He is less willing to accept that launching the war without UN approval has had a similar effect, preferring to argue that the UN needs to update its conception of what constitutes justification for war in the modern era.
One of Shawcross' predictions at least appears to have been invalidated by the course of events. He suggests that removing the Saddam regime was a precondition for any solution of the broader Middle East problem involving Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states. As the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues its weary rounds of ever-escalating atrocities and violence, it seems clear that this, at least, was wrong. Indeed, the evident anti-American reaction on the Arab street to the US presence in Iraq (worsened by the prisoner abuses recently revealed) can only make a Middle East settlement harder. But Shawcross is not the first, nor will he be the last, writer on international affairs to make a prediction overturned by later developments. Many (this reviewer included) confidently predicted Saddam's downfall after he led his people into the twin disasters of the Iran invasion and the 1991 Gulf War. Let the Iraqis deal with Saddam, we said; dictators who make mistakes on this scale won't last long.
There are one or two instances of inadvertent historical irony. Shawcross disapprovingly quotes the German UN Ambassador, Gunther Pleuger, as saying early in 2003 that it would be better to force the US to act unilaterally so that it "would be seen as being forced to return … with regret to the Security Council when it came to the issue of reconstruction." Given postwar US pleas for greater UN involvement, this is exactly what has happened.
Shawcross' bottom line really encapsulates everything his book is about:
For all its faults, American commitment and American sacrifice are essential to the world. As in the 20th century, so in the 21st, only America has both the power and the optimism to defend the world against what really are forces of darkness.
It is incumbent on those who see things otherwise to provide an alternative vision which does not in effect resign the international stage to tyrants, aggressors, religious lunatics and terrorism.
The book makes its case with persuasive eloquence and even passion. As I have said, it is a work of advocacy rather than scholarship, and as such it can be accounted a successful exemplar of its type. Agree with it or not: it is well worth a read.