The Long Road to Baghdad

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Lloyd C Gardner, The New Press, £18.99

This is an important book. It stands out from the growing literature on the build-up to the Iraq war for three reasons. First it has to be amongst the most closely researched and information-rich accounts of how and why US foreign policy has evolved. It provides chapter and verse to show that not just Donald Rumsfeld but George Bush too was pressing to attack Iraq within 24 hours of 9/11. "Go back over everything, everything," Bush reportedly ordered his head of counter-terrorism on 12 September, 2001, "See if Saddam did this. See if he's linked in any way." Lloyd C Gardner presents conclusive evidence that the US gave the green light to Saddam's invasion of Iran in 1980 and then backed both sides during the war that followed, and that Bush senior's administration gave the impression to Saddam Hussein that they wouldn't oppose an invasion of Kuwait in 1991.

Secondly, the resulting account explains the twists and turns of the last four decades of Middle East policy very clearly. Gardner emphasises the impact of the Iranian revolution on Washington's thinking. He cites evidence to show not just support for Saddam but also the arming of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan from 1979 was partly a response to fear of the growing power of Khomeini. He shows too that Bush senior's decision not to overthrow Saddam in 1981 came from fear of the Shia masses in Iraq and of leaving Iran as the strongest nation in the region.

Most important of all though is the book's timeframe and its central argument. Gardner places the current wars into a historical sweep starting from the shock of the Vietnam defeat. He shows that from the mid-1970s US foreign policy makers have been doing everything possible to break the Vietnam syndrome in general and step up US intervention in the Middle East in particular. Initially President Jimmy Carter tried to make a virtue out of the humbling of the US and concentrate on a human rights offensive. This didn't last long. By 1979 he was flattering the ruthless Shah of Iran in after dinner speeches: "Our talks have been priceless, our friendship is irreplaceable, and our gratitude is to the Shah...There is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal gratitude and personal friendship."

It was the Democratic security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who got the president back on track. The Soviet threat was the key issue but Brzezinski's rhetoric of an "arc of crisis", from Central Asia down to the Middle East and North Africa, sounds very contemporary. As Gardner points out, "What will stand out one day is not George W Bush's uniqueness but the continuum from the Carter Doctrine to 'shock and awe' in 2003."

Gardner's analysis has more than historical importance. By stressing the acceleration of US intervention abroad since the 1970s, under Democrat and Republican presidents alike, Gardner helps us predict the future.