Lord Smith of Finsbury (Labour)
My Lords, it was with a heavy heart nearly five years ago that I told my own Government and my own Prime Minister that I thought they were making a huge mistake in joining the American invasion of Iraq. I proposed the Motion in another place that brought 130 of my Labour colleagues into the Division Lobby against our own Government. I took no pleasure in doing that, and there are no prizes in politics for having been right at the time—nor would I wish to seek any—but I must observe that that decision to join in the American invasion of Iraq was the single most catastrophic foreign-policy decision taken by the UK in the past 20 or 30 years.
As a result of that invasion, thousands of people, many of whom are our own troops and many are Iraqis, are dead or injured. There are even higher numbers of refugees. Iraq has been in chaos for at least three and a half years. It is in less chaos now, but still the sustainability of society in Iraq is very much in question. Perhaps most crucially of all, the struggle against terrorism worldwide has undoubtedly been set back and hampered by the decisions that were taken then. We need to ask ourselves with care and seriousness how we came to make these mistakes and how they can be avoided in future. Here, for what it is worth, is my list.
First, we should not give open-ended commitments to allies, however important, and particularly to Presidents of the United States, long before military action is taken. We should always remember that the role of a candid friend is sometimes to tell an ally that we believe it is wrong. The United States has given huge sacrifice and service to the rest of the world in the past 100 years, but it is not always right. Sometimes, as an ally and a friend—as one of its most important friends in the world—we need to tell it that we believe that it is wrong.
Secondly, we should not seek to fit the facts around the story that we have already decided to tell. It appears that there were times in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq that that was precisely what was happening.
Thirdly, we should work exhaustively through international organisations and especially through the United Nations. It is an imperfect instrument of course, and always will be, but in working for change around the world we need to use the instruments that we have because if we do not seek to use them, and indeed do not seek to improve them, the resulting actions can bring much greater chaos. Yes, we need to think seriously about how the United Nations is composed, how it works, how it takes its decisions and how those things can be improved. The very important point made by my noble friend Lady Symons is that the international community needs seriously to think through the criteria for intervening in the affairs of a sovereign country, and the United Nations is absolutely the right body to do so.
Fourthly, we need to recognise that we will win against terrorism and terrorists only by engaging in dialogue, and deploying argument and example, rather than by seizing on force as the immediate way to win that argument. We must realise, in particular, that you cannot impose democracy on a country by force. Democracy has to be built from the bottom in a society; it cannot be delivered from above.
Fifthly, we must realise that in the Middle East, and the Islamic world in particular, the fate of the Palestinians is not a sideshow, nor an afterthought, but absolutely central to any understanding of the respect—or lack of respect—towards the West that is held across that entire region. The silence of many western Governments over what has been happening in the past few days in Gaza is something that we need, perhaps, to reflect upon.
Sixthly, if you do invade, you must have a clear plan for what to do next. Do not stand by as looters take over, the national museum is stripped of its treasures and the entire government service and army are removed from their posts, creating a lethal combination of chaos and readily mobilised armed insurgent groups.
Seventhly, you need to plan sensibly for peace and reconstruction. Perhaps we need to look at the role that our organisations, particularly DfID, can and should play in this process rather more closely than we have in the past.
Eighthly, perhaps above all, you must know that war is never, and never should be, the first resort of policy. Sometimes, of course, military force may be necessary. I was part of the Cabinet that took the decision to take action in Kosovo; it was the right decision then, but war is not always the right decision. We must not allow one successful mission to lead us into thinking that others will automatically be right or easy. War is never easy. It is nasty, brutish, and it may, very often, be far from short. It is also full of unintended consequences. Actions entered into with entirely honourable motives turn out rather differently from what those who entered into them expected.
These are some of the things that we need to consider for the future. There is a lot that we know and can do without having an inquiry. I happen to think that an inquiry would be useful, and would urge the Government to consider the call for an inquiry more readily and favourably than, perhaps, they have done until now. We know a lot about what went wrong and why. We need now, even before an inquiry takes place, to apply ourselves to not making the same mistakes again.