'SHOULD THERE BE A WAR AGAINST IRAQ?'

CHATHAM HOUSE – 6 February 2003

[Tape transcript of an extempore response to Tam Dalyell MP, Father of the House, in debate at the Royal Institute for International Affairs.]

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I do begin with a heartfelt apology on behalf of Bernard Jenkin. Bernard had absolutely no choice in this matter. We discovered only this morning that there was going to be a Statement by Geoff Hoon on this very crisis and it was Bernard’s absolute duty to be in the Chamber to respond to it. Therefore, you find yourselves with, shall we say, the monkey rather than the organ-grinder.

But for all that – and for the approximate 3:1 majority, at the outset of the debate, against the position I am going to take – I shall do my best. And I shall do my best to do something in the spirit of true debate: which is actually to respond to the points that Tam [Dalyell] has made rather than to come forward with a set speech of my own.

In the time available I will do that and I will make what I consider to be two or three crucial points at the end; and, after that, I hope that you will have the opportunity to explore one another’s views and our views further in the course of the exchanges.

I cannot match, I have to say at the beginning, Tam’s National Service record as a National Service officer. I myself was too young to do National Service, but I became a member of the Royal Naval Reserve, on the lower deck, and I am not sure that being on the lower deck as a volunteer disqualifies me from having a view any more than Tam being a National Service officer disqualifies him. But one thing we have to bear in mind is that when we are talking about issues of policy and strategy, military qualifications – formal military qualifications – are not always the best guide. For example, we heard about distinguished generals, senior officers, people who may have been in the lead in past recent military campaigns, who have doubts about this one. For every one of those people whom Tam has named, I could probably come up with examples of senior military officers who have been involved in previous wars, who have wrongly then been against subsequent wars.

Anybody who has studied the 1930s, for example, will know for certain that there were many people who saw distinguished service in World War I, yet who were in the ranks of the foremost appeasers in the run-up to World War II. Distinguished service in the past is not of itself an argument.

I am asked what the military objective is. I think the military objective is quite clear: it is to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction and to ensure that he cannot have them again in the future.

What Tam then went on to talk about were the means of achieving that objective – he talked about bombing, siege and street-fighting. And my mind did go back to 1990 and 1991 when Saddam Hussein boasted to the world, in advance, that what was going to happen was the Mother of All Battles. What actually happened was the Mother of All Defeats, because that régime has no significant support at home.

And if there is blame to be attached to what happened in the early 1990s in the first Gulf War, then it is blame to be attached to the John Major administration and the George Bush Sr. administration because they did not finish the job. That is what they should have done. Why did they not finish the job? They didn’t finish the job for all the sort of good reasons that appeasers and people who are essentially consensual politicians always bring forward.

I remember it quite distinctly. It was felt very important that there should be a coalition. It was felt very important that Britain and America should not be acting unilaterally. It was felt very important that Arab governments should be part of that coalition and it was felt to be a racing certainty that, if we did more than expel Saddam Hussein from the territory which he had invaded, then that coalition would break up.

And, Ladies and Gentlemen, that may well have been right; but it would still have been the lesser of two evils – because what happened by not finishing the job was that Saddam was able to go on developing weapons of mass destruction. He was able to throw out the Inspectors in 1998. He was able, as far as we can tell, to continue to develop weapons of mass destruction, and you experts will know far better than an ex-ordinary seaman, lower-deck, Royal Naval reservist like me, that if you produce quantities, lethal quantities, of biological and chemical weapons, you can hide them in any hole in the ground anywhere in Iraq and destroy the plant that made them – so there is no chance of detecting where they are.

So, if you ask me personally:

“Is there any way of disarming Saddam Hussein, and keeping him disarmed, other than getting rid of his regime?”

my personal answer is:

“No, there is not”.

We should have got rid of his régime last time and we should get rid of it next time.

Tam seems to think that there are going to be all these great masses of Arabs – Iraqis, people, warriors – dying in the last ditch, like the Polish Underground working through the sewers, putting themselves into the situation where they will, to their last breath, go into battle with the beloved name of Saddam on their lips. I don’t think it will be like that at all. I think that, in fact, the idea that there will be this huge amount of resistance in favour of a dictator of that sort is ludicrous.

Furthermore, on the question of the effect on the Arab World, although there are many people in this room – I met some of them at the reception before we started this meeting – who know a great deal more than I will ever know about the Arab World, I think that, if we are ever to tackle any renegade Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein is the best possible example of someone we could tackle without having dire effects.

Even Tam said that it would be perceived “rightly or wrongly” as an attack by Christendom on the Arab World; and that was a tacit admission that it would probably be wrong to perceive it in that way. We cannot sacrifice our strategic interests, and we cannot sacrifice our sense of what is right and what is wrong, to a false perception that might be held by some Arab régimes which, in fact, are probably a lot more hard-headed about this than Tam gives them credit for.

Then we move on to the question of the need for upholding the authority of the United Nations. Now, there is a long tradition of Opposition joining with Government, putting Party considerations aside, when issues of war and peace emerge. And this is what the Conservative Opposition has done in this case. I believe that in his reaction to September 11, and in his support for America over Iraq, Tony Blair has, for the most part, been spot on; and I have said so consistently, even though he is a Labour Prime Minister and I am an Opposition, Conservative politician.

But in one respect, I think, he may find that he has done his cause a bit of a disservice – although it may yet work out because he has been a very lucky politician up to now – and that is the way in which he has pushed America down the UN route. If it turns out that there is a second Resolution, then it will turn out to be a good move by Blair; but if it turns out that there will not be a second UN Resolution, then it will turn out to have been a boomerang – a step that backfired. For it cannot be right to say that, on an issue of this sort, we should give to the United Nations the opportunity to block us from doing what strategically we regard as being essential.

And why is that so essential?

I now come to my final comment – for which I have only the 50 seconds my time allows. And it is this: aggression consists of two things – capability and the intention to use that capability. We know that Saddam has tried to get mass destruction weapons. We know that, without our tackling this matter once and for all, he will get this capability and that he probably has some of it already. If we accept that a régime like Saddam Hussein’s should have the capability of possessing weapons of mass destruction, it would then mean that we should have to rely on his intention not to use them. Ask yourselves this: what would have happened if he had had weapons of mass destruction before he moved on Kuwait?

I am not prepared to see a dictator like that with weapons of mass destruction, able to sit in a strategic position and blackmail the West – and, above all, in an environment where terrorist groups have now come forward which, if they could get their hands on such weapons, would unhesitatingly use them. For that reason I say that this nettle has got to be grasped, belatedly, once and for all.

JULIAN LEWIS