Allies: the United States, Britain, Europe and the war with Iraq by William Shawcross

An uneasy view from the bridge of the transatlantic alliance
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The Independent Culture

Allies is an articulate, informed presentation of the core relationship between George Bush and Tony Blair that has had such an impact on British politics. William Shawcross is a convinced supporter of that relationship and believes it fundamental to the success of Bush's "war on terror". The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were essential, he argues, and radical Islam is a profound threat that must be opposed by all necessary means. Those who question the Iraq war are at best misguided and at worse malign.

If this book had been written six months ago, immediately after the first part of the war, it might well have been a triumphalist account of the success of the Bush/Blair axis over domestic doubters and the perfidious French. Instead, as the war moves towards its ninth month and Saddam's seizure fails to halt attacks, there is a sense of anxiety moving towards dismay. It is a concern that the growing instability in Afghanistan and the insurgency in Iraq could unsettle if not destroy the great project for a new American century, which Shawcross believes our best hope for a more stable world.

Allies charts the development of the Bush/Blair relationship in relation to the neo-conservative agenda, and does much to explain Blair's acceptance of its analysis. Shawcross focuses convincingly on the relevance of shared religious beliefs, even that of a Baptist with an "almost" Catholic, and is lucid in understanding Blair's fundamental acceptance of US leadership - with Europe as the junior partner.

The problem is that Allies is too much of a polemic, even as it unconsciously informs us of the awful dangers in Bush's war. Saddam's Iraq was indeed a brutal dictatorship; few will mourn its passing or his capture. It is true that most arms imports before 1991 came from the French and the Soviets. But Iraq was also the bulwark of the West, not least the US, against the Iranian ayatollahs.

We may all remember Saddam's gassing of the Kurds in March 1988, but few recall that the following month the US Navy was sinking Iranian warships in the Gulf and so helping Saddam end his eight-year war on favourable terms. Similarly, Allies makes little mention of the oil motive, of the detainees at Guantanamo or the 12,000 civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. It shows a thorough understanding of the White House outlook but seems entirely unable to comprehend the view from the majority world.

In this context, Shawcross's unease is significant, and his call for more resolute action the only response he can offer. That this may well make matters worse is impossible to accept, as the current policies allow for no alternative.

Allies has its real value in its lucid and hugely readable understanding of the Bush/Blair outlook. Others may have to remind us that 96 per cent of the world's people are not American, and that failing to understand their world is self-defeating. This book does at least demonstrate the extent of that problem.

The reviewer is professor of peace studies at Bradford University