It is said that the day after one of his presentations to the United Nations Security Council, Hans Blix presented himself to an astonished consul in New York, in fulfilment of the pension requirement on Swedish expatriates that they provide proof of life once a year. It is eloquent testimony to the unassuming style of the UN former chief weapons inspector that he imagined there could be any doubt about the continued existence of a man whose speech had just been watched by tens of millions on global television.
His decent, dutiful character informs Disarming Iraq: the search for weapons of mass destruction, which describes the confrontation between an upright, patient public servant and bullying, deceitful government officials. The government in question was not Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, but the supposedly democratic administration in Washington.
At their first meeting, Vice-President Dick Cheney warned Blix that the Bush administration would not hesitate "to discredit" the inspectors, and at various points subsequently Blix found he was "vilified, crucified and made to look like an imbecile" in the American press. It is to his credit that he never gave in to the pressure to slant his reports to reflect not the evidence in Iraq, but the prejudices in the White House.
His firmness was also beneficial to the UN. Blix asks us to consider how damaging it would have been to the UN if he had endorsed the faulty US/UK intelligence, and the Security Council had then authorised war only to find that there were none of what he dubs "weapons of mass disappearance".
Downing Street dutifully added to the pressure on the UN inspectors. Blix records Tony Blair telephoning him to tell him that the Americans had been disappointed with his latest report, which "had undermined their faith in the UN process". Fortunately, Blix was shrewd enough to decode the Prime Minister's real meaning - that his irritating commitment to telling the truth was undermining the Americans' belief that they would get UN backing for war.
This is a valuable, authoritative work of record by a diplomat who did his best to prove that the crisis could be resolved without resort to war. Its objective tone does not always make for the most compelling read, and much of the content is already in the public domain. There are, however, memorable vignettes, such as an account of the search of the refrigerators in an Iraqi presidential palace which produced no chemicals or biological agents but "lots of marmalade". Blix reserves his greatest scorn for the grotesque exaggeration of the Iraq threat by Blair and Bush. He ascribes this to a "monumental" failure of intelligence. Yet two books written by former White House insiders make it clear that, right from the start, the Bush administration's ideological commitment to occupying Iraq overrode objective reality.
In The Price of Loyalty, Paul O'Neill, the former treasury secretary, relates his experiences to the journalist and author Ron Suskind. According to O'Neill, in the second week of the new administration President Bush chaired a discussion on "how Iraq is destabilising the region", complete with satellite photographs of an alleged chemical weapons plant that looked a lot like many other factories. The hollowness of Tony Blair's hope that after Iraq Bush would engage with the Middle East road map is exposed by the conclusion of the same meeting three years ago - that the US would disengage from the peace process and, in the president's words, "tilt back towards Israel".
It is plain from O'Neill's account that the painstaking rationality of Hans Blix never had a hope of denting Bush's obsession with Saddam. Bush even closes a lengthy meeting on economic policy with the spectacularly irrelevant observation that "Until we get rid of Saddam Hussein, we won't get rid of [economic] uncertainty."
O'Neill is caustic about the president's intellect. He repeatedly complains that when he gave an oral briefing Bush did not ask a question, and that when he sent up a written briefing the president did not read it. A measure of Bush's weakness is his vice-president's strength. Cheney emerges from O'Neill's account as the power behind the throne, orchestrating meetings and manipulating the flow of information, to the point where it could not be discerned "where Cheney ended and the president began". Even when O'Neill is fired it is the vice-president who makes the call to sack him. In Britain, this would be the equivalent of Blair leaving it to John Prescott to conduct a cabinet reshuffle.
The tedious consequence of O'Neill's account being relayed through Ron Suskind is that The Price of Loyalty sometimes reads like a hugely extended Newsweek interview. By contrast, there is no mistaking that the passionate prose of Richard A Clarke in Against All Enemies is the authentic voice of an official enraged by the incompetence he witnessed at close quarters in the White House.
First, a few health warnings. Clarke is no European social democrat. He attributes victory in the cold war to US support for Christian Democrats. Nor does his enthusiasm for muscular measures sit easily with the British preference for minimal force. In a moment worthy of John Wayne, he responds to being warned that Osama Bin Laden is trying to kill him with the comment: "Well, that's not surprising, since I'm trying to get him killed."
The problem with summary justice against terrorists is that it often ends up taking out the wrong target - as in Bill Clinton's bombing with cruise missiles of the Shifa pharmaceuticals factory in Khartoum in August 1998. Clarke defends the destruction of the factory, but in truth it posed no threat to our way of life, unless we expected al-Qaeda to spray us with aspirins in the hope that we would overdose.
Yet none of this should detract from Clarke's achievement. He has done more than any other US voter in the past four years to embarrass George Bush. His book is a revealing and intelligent record of a quarter-century spent in the national security corridors in and around the White House.
He is commendably honest about the failures along the way. He does not conceal - indeed records with pride - the role of the Reagan administration in defeating the Russians in Afghanistan by supplying and training the mujahedin with surface-to-air missiles. However, he now admits it was a mistake not to consider the nature of the fanatics whom Washington was helping. Because the debacle in Afghanistan was followed by the implosion of the Soviet Union al-Qaeda concluded that, with money and weapons, "you could destroy a superpower".
Clarke was the crisis manager in the bunkers of the White House on 11 September 2001, when al-Qaeda proved its determination to execute this boast. His account is enlivened with flashes of his impatience at an administration which had not taken his warnings seriously. Even after the attacks, he found staff in the vice-president's bunker complaining they could not participate fully in that day's video conferences because Lynne Cheney kept turning down the volume so that she could hear CNN.
The reason Clarke currently occupies the centre stage of political controversy in Washington, DC is because of his allegation that the Bush administration took no interest in international terrorism until it hit the twin towers. His evidence is damning. While some of the hijacked planes were still in the air he took a call from the FBI to say that it recognised names on the passenger list as al-Qaeda operatives, whom the CIA had "forgotten" to tell the FBI were in the US.
But more relevant to the British debate is Clarke's convincing claim that, in the aftermath of the attacks, the White House obsession with Iraq proved an epic distraction from tackling terrorism. That idee fixe surfaced only a couple of days later when Clarke found Bush wandering in the situation room and demanding that he "see if Saddam did this".
The shocking truth that emerges from Clarke's account is that after 11 September, the Bush administration did not see international terrorism as a threat but as an opportunity. It enabled the White House to secure the support of the US public, and more perplexingly that of Downing Street, for an invasion of Iraq falsely packaged as part of the "war on terrorism".
Clarke's final chapter is the best account I have read of why the war on Iraq, far from making the world safer, has increased the threat from terrorism. He is contemptuous of the Bush administration's belief that "bombs and bullets, handcuffs and jail bars" alone will beat terrorism, and pours scorn on its failure to formulate an effective ideological and cultural response to fundamentalism in the Islamic world. "We did exactly what al-Qaeda said we would do. We invaded and occupied an oil-rich Arab country that posed no threat to us."
If you read only one book about the Iraq conflict, make it Against All Enemies.
Robin Cook was foreign secretary from 1997-2001