These two instant books on the background to the war over Kuwait, both by pairs of journalists, are complementary. Saddam's War is a clearly written introduction to the pre-history of the current carnage by two experienced British Middle East correspondents, both now in the Independent stable. Unholy Babylon, by an Egyptian journalist (also now on the Independent) and a pseudonymous British defence specialist, provides a welter of extra background information, particularly on oil, the history of Iraq's relationship with Kuwait, the development of Iraqi Ba'athism and the world's arms sales to Saddam Hussein.
No heroes emerge from the pages of either book, and the villains are many. Saddam is the main one, and with some reason. On the evidence assembled here, no one could doubt that this street-fighting thug turned torturer turned totalitarian despot heads one of the vilest regimes in the world. Both sets of authors point to the ideological debts owned by Ba'athism to the European fascisms of the twenties and thirties – the fetish of military valour, the cult of the authoritarian leader, the myth of the betrayed nation – and it is impossible not to note the similarities between Saddam's techniques of rule by terror and those of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
But Saddam would never have come close to power, his militarist pan-Arabism would never have had any political purchase, had not Britain, France and the United States made such a pig's ear of the Middle East in the past century. And he would not have stayed in power, let alone been capable of taking on the military might of the United States and its allies, had not those same powers, ably assisted by the Soviet Union, cynically sustained his regime as a bulwark against Iran and Syria. Darwish and Alexander catalogue the giant arms deals, the massive economic aid packages and the diplomatic silences with considerable verve.
When and why the US decided that it was time to put an end to its appeasement of Saddam is a moot point. Both books effectively discount the idea that the decision was made long before August 2 and that Saddam was lured into taking Kuwait to provide a pretext for acting against him; the detailed account in Unholy Babylon suggests that the Bush administration, operating on State Department advice, was genuinely surprised by the invasion despite the CIA's warnings. In any case, the Americans responded by sending substantial armed forces to Saudi Arabia, and by November, through inertia or choice, war rather than containment was clearly what the US and its allies were promising Saddam if he did not withdraw.
Here, understandably, both books begin to tail off, their authors unwilling to predict the course of events as the January 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait approached. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that Unholy Babylon, on the whole more sceptical about the wisdom of taking military action against Saddam, underplays the possibility that by the end of 1990 (possibly earlier, or even all along) Saddam actually wanted war, calculating that he could at least last long enough to go down in history as a hero of the Arab masses. Saddam's War, which occasionally lapses into trite moralising in its concluding chapter, tends to skate over the potentially disastrous political ramifications of attempting to remove Saddam from Kuwait by force. But this is carping: as instant books go, both of these provide plenty of insights.