CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

DILEMMAS AND STANDARDS IN WAR – 11 March 2003

Dr Julian Lewis: I would have been more impressed with the analysis of the Middle East by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) had he addressed what my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (John Maples) said about a Middle East settlement. The settlement is on the table and is clear. It was nearly achieved before and the only way in which it will be achieved in the foreseeable future will not be as a result of recriminatory speeches about one side in the Middle East dispute, like that of the hon. Gentleman, but for both sides to be forced to reach a compromise agreement so that they have their own states and the security that they require.

The Select Committee produced a thoughtful report that was thoughtfully presented by the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson). However, I do not agree that the problems raised in it are entirely new – except, perhaps, in one respect: the threat that terrorist organisations might acquire weapons of mass destruction that have so far only been available to state actors. Some of the problems are similar to the age-old problems that have faced democracies in conflict situations whenever they arise, such as how far a democratic country should go down the route of the enemy that it is striving to defeat in time of war or other conflict.

Hon. Members may know that during the Second World War, the film producers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created a masterpiece, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", based on David Low's famous character of a stick-in-the-mud, though brave, British officer. Churchill was said to be very upset about the film being produced in wartime because it portrayed a German, who was one of the main characters, extremely sympathetically. Churchill had not seen the film, as is so often the case with people who criticise in ignorance, but the sympathetic German character was saying that the Colonel Blimp approach—the honourable approach; the play-it-by-the-rules-in-time-of-war approach—could not always be sustained in moments of grave crisis. Indeed, the German character argued that total war meant that difficult decisions which would not be regarded as acceptable in times of peace might have to be taken in times of war.

Andrew Tyrie: My hon. Friend has mentioned one of my favourite films and he makes an interesting analogy. Does he take that logic to mean that we should justify the use of torture on terrorist suspects?

Dr Lewis: That is precisely one of the dilemmas that countries face in such circumstances. It would not be right for a country to institutionalise the use of torture to extract information. However, I defy my hon. Friend to deny that that will not happen under the pressure of events if that pressure is great enough. I am glad that he has raised that example. Some hon. Members would undoubtedly find it easy to say that under no circumstances should improper pressure ever be applied to a prisoner; but if bin Laden had been in American hands shortly before 11 September and it had been known that al-Qaeda was about to launch a deadly attack, although it was not known when or where it would fall, who could say that it would be a cut-and-dried recommendation that under no circumstances should he have been subjected to what we would usually regard as improper pressure? The truth of the matter is that there can be no absolute rules in such cases. Each case has to be judged on its merits in the circumstances that apply at the time. If people say that that is totally unacceptable, I say that their attitude is totally unrealistic.

I remember reading how, at the start of the Second World War, British bombers were not allowed to bomb anything other than German ships at sea because only then would they have the assurance that innocent civilians would not be caught up as casualties. How long did that restriction last under the pressure of war?

Mr Peter Kilfoyle: Leaving aside the fact that the United Nations Charter explicitly rules out the use of torture and that the hon. Gentleman seems to advocate a relative morality that would sit ill with him on other occasions, may I posit another possibility? He will have read what Prime Minister Sharon said at the weekend about potential nuclear facilities or developments in Iran. In that instance, does he accept that another pre-emptive strike would be acceptable on the grounds that Iran may or may not develop nuclear weapons from its civil programme?

Dr Lewis: That is a very good scenario to consider, and I shall do so in a moment. I should like to correct the hon. Gentleman. I am not trying to say what is or is not acceptable; I am trying to make the House think about what is or is not realistic. It is not realistic to think that in issues of war and peace, even the finest rules, the finest laws and the finest conventions drawn up by the finest lawyers will be enough to ensure that every circumstance is catered for because, believe me, under the pressure of events, we find that they are not.

In giving the example that he did, the hon. Gentleman anticipated that I was about to refer, as the right hon. Member for Swansea, East did in his opening remarks, to the Israeli bombing of the Iraqi reactor in 1981. That is a classic example of a case that is not open and shut. At the time, I felt that the Israelis had a pretty good case for doing what they did. Retrospectively, more people believe that, but it is clear from the thoughtful remarks of the right hon. Gentleman, the Chairman of the Select Committee, that although the Committee thought that there was an arguable case for the action, on balance it felt that the Israelis were too pre-emptive in acting against a possibility that was too far in the future.

I return to the main point of this part of my presentation, which is that these matters are not black and white; they are not open and shut; and they cannot be decided by rules alone. There will always be scope for argument within the circumstances of the particular case. I shall give another example: the question of targeted assassination. One could say that a double standard has been applied by our American allies in this matter. They have, as far as I know, consistently condemned the Israelis for using targeted assassination against Hamas militants. Yet the Americans were over the moon when, not so long ago, they had a successful similar attack against a number of leading al-Qaeda suspects in a car. The truth is that when one is at war those rules will be stretched to the point where sometimes they will be broken.

There is nothing new in talking about targeted assassination. Which is better—targeted assassination against a known Hamas leader, tanks rolling into a base where Hamas people are mixed in with innocent civilians, or doing nothing and letting one's own people be attacked with impunity? Such dilemmas have come up time and again, and there are arguments for all those courses. The issue goes back a long way. Sir Thomas More, writing in his famous book Utopia, recommended as one solution to the problem of war that when armies formed against one another, a group of shock troops from one's own army should target the enemy general and attack him, and only him, in wave after wave until he was eliminated, and thus bring the battle to a speedy end—a policy of targeted assassination.

Churchill, in 1944, faced with the V-weapon threat, ardently advocated the use of gas against the V-weapon sites, pointing out when people objected that in the First World War there had been an absolute bar on the bombing of cities but gas was used freely, and now, in the Second World War, every one was bombing cities, but no one was thinking of using gas. In the end, the reason that gas was not used was not a moral one: the Chiefs of Staff convinced Churchill that gas would be less effective in those circumstances than ordinary high explosive. Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that such dilemmas, conflicts and wars can be resolved by sets of rules. Rules help us but they cannot do the whole job.

Mr Kilfoyle: It is highly erroneous of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that what would be, in modern military parlance, an attack on the command and control centres – the general in charge – is targeted assassination. It is far removed from that. Targeted assassination was the subject of much debate in this House in relation to the shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland. Does he accept that it was right to shoot to kill in Northern Ireland?

Dr Lewis: It would depend on the circumstances. If an IRA cell, as at Loughall, was trying to mount a lethal attack and was ambushed, I would not shed any tears for the people whose lives ended under such circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman has brought me neatly to my next point. Terrorists cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim on the one hand to declare war on people but, on the other, claim that they should be immune from the lowering of standards that inevitably occurs during war. Make no mistake, war has been declared by terrorists who have rightly been described by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Malcolm Savidge) as apocalyptic. In war, some liberties are inevitably sacrificed to preserve liberty overall. My argument is simple, and I shall reiterate it—there are no easy answers, each case must be considered on its own merits, and the application of abstract principles can never be absolute, however desirable that may be.

There is a war on two fronts. There is a war involving rogue states that are creating weapons of mass destruction, and there is a war involving terror groups hell-bent on using them. The ability to fight a war on two fronts is often called into question, but in this case entirely different resources are required to fight on each front. The resources required to fight the rogue states creating weapons of mass destruction are conventional, but the resources required to fight groups such as al-Qaeda are intelligence and security measures. The two battles that are being fought simultaneously are complementary—they are not in competition with each other.

Terrorism has complicated the problem of Iraq and has proved retrospectively that it was wrong to set the preservation of the coalition in 1991 above the desire to topple Saddam Hussein at that time. Because of terrorism, it is wrong to put all our faith in the United Nations now, just as it was wrong to put all our faith in the League of Nations in the 1930s. The United Nations, like the League, is not a world government and is easily undermined if its members fail to face up to the need for action. Future generations will find it incomprehensible as well as bizarre that a lethal, tyrannical bully like Saddam should have been tolerated for so long by so many people who created so large a protest in such a thoroughly bad cause.