WAR WITH IRAQ – 24 September 2002

Dr Julian Lewis: I have just returned this morning from the United States of America, having flown out there on 11 September. Subjective as it is, my impression of the mood in America is very different from some that we have heard in the Chamber today. My impression of that mood is that it is one of grief, reflectiveness and a steady determination not to suffer the sort of horror that they suffered 12 months ago.

On my return today, I am therefore disappointed - though not entirely surprised - to find comments being reported in the press from the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton, in which their leader stated there that there was

"more than a hint of imperialism"

about what America was doing. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] I hope that the record will show Liberal Democrats cheering those remarks. Another Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman is similarly reported as having described the United States' democratically elected Government as a "regime" - [Interruption.] I hope that the record will show Liberal Democrats laughing and sneering in support of those remarks in today's debate.

We heard today the hon. Liberal Democrat Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) describe the United States, after all that it has been through in the past year, as nothing better than a "playground bully". A little more surprising than the facile and hostile comments of the Liberal Democrats are the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Ian Taylor), who seems to think that the United States has not had significant success in the war against al-Qaeda. I beg to differ. Any look at the recent record of what has been happening in the war against al-Qaeda bears out the interpretation that the United States has been doing very well indeed.

On 11 September this year, Ramzi bin al-Shibh was arrested in Pakistan as a result of American intelligence tip-offs. That follows a successfully established pattern of reeling in key terrorists one by one. It may well be that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is believed to have been the military head of al-Qaeda and who boasted in a recent broadcast that he had first conceived the idea of flying aircraft into American buildings, may have been captured or killed in the same raid. We know about the previous capture of Abu Zubeida, al-Qaeda's chief of operations. So it is stretching the imagination to suggest that America's concern with Iraq is based on nothing more than a diversionary need to compensate for as yet inadequate action against al-Qaeda.

It has been asked today whether a state can act without United Nations' authority. I suggest to the House that there is at least one set of circumstances in which a state can do so: when the United Nations fails to enforce its own resolutions if those have been flagrantly disregarded. I have in mind the letter that was quoted in part during the Prime Minister's statement earlier today by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. The letter was sent by the weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, at the time of his resignation in 1998, before he suddenly decided, years later, that Saddam Hussein did not pose a threat from mass destruction weapons after all. The letter stated:

"The sad truth is that Iraq today is not disarmed anywhere near the level required by Security Council resolutions ... Iraq has lied to the Special Commission and the world since day one ... the Commission has uncovered indisputable proof of a systematic concealment mechanism run by the Presidency of Iraq and protected by Iraqi security forces."

Mr Ritter concluded:

"The issue of immediate, unrestricted access is, in my opinion, an issue worth fighting for."

If even Scott Ritter, who has become something of a hero to Labour Members who are against war, felt at the time when he had adequate knowledge that the enforcement of those resolutions was worth fighting for, perhaps the Prime Minister is not too far adrift in expressing a similar opinion in the light of his up-to-date knowledge - his full knowledge, awareness and concern, which we as a loyal Opposition have supported consistently - about what Saddam Hussein may well try to do.

When is pre-emption justified? I suggest it is when someone with evil intent seeks to acquire devastating capability. It would be very hard to justify overthrowing Saddam if he were seeking mass destruction weapons for deterrent purposes, but that man's record is not one of deterrence; rather, it is a record of aggression, invasion and mass murder.

When Afghanistan was attacked and the Taliban were overthrown, far fewer voices were raised against Anglo-US action than are being raised in today's debate. Why is that? It is because the attacks against the United States had already taken place out of the blue. I was impressed by the Prime Minister's argument, used in his earlier press conference though not in the House today, about pre-emption. He pointed out that had he or President Bush come to their electorates on 9 or 10 September 2001 and said,

"We have intelligence information that makes us believe with a reasonably secure level of assuredness that al-Qaeda is about to launch an horrific attack; we do not know the details, the precise timing, or the location, but we wish to take pre-emptive action against this group",

the reaction would have been similar to that being shown by Members on the left of the Labour Party and by the Liberal Democrats as a whole to the suggestion that pre-emptive action may be necessary against Saddam Hussein.

The difference between those two situations is this: it is one thing for a terrorist group to kill 3,000 innocent people without warning out of the blue, but it is quite another for a mass murderer, a dictator and a tyrant to be able to launch out of the blue an attack with mass destruction weapons, especially when - I was delighted that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Edward Garnier) brought this out in his speech - it may be done by proxy. It may be done by means of supplying the weapons of mass destruction to third parties, while Saddam Hussein sits back, washes his hands and says: "It's nothing to do with me."

The Arab world has a pretty good idea of what Saddam Hussein is like and is unlikely to be set ablaze in the cause of protecting him. I remember well when, in 1991, Saddam tried to declare a holy war and claim that his aggression was part of a jihad. In reality, the Arab world took little notice.

I conclude on a hopeful note. A recent report of the comments of the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, shows that perhaps after all Saudi Arabia will allow the US to strike Iraq from Saudi bases. That is against what the Saudis were saying previously, but they know that ultimately Saddam Hussein is no friend of the Arab cause any more than he is a friend of democracy or of the Iraqi people.