Lord Malloch-Brown (Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Labour)
My Lords, I join all who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on his prescience in raising this issue again today. Listening to the extraordinarily wise and varied contributions that have been made today, as other noble Lords have noted, and recognising the combined years of experience and wisdom in these matters that those speeches represent, one can draw only one conclusion when one hears more questions than answers in such a debate. There is clearly a need to establish as definitively as possible the facts. Many noble Lords have therefore called for an inquiry.
One has listened to the litany of issues that have been raised: the causes of the war and the circumstances under which the war was entered into; the use or improper use of intelligence; the question of whether the war was fought with sufficient troops compared to the numbers in the earlier Gulf War of 1991; the early decisions made after the occupation on de-Ba'athification and the standing down of the Iraqi army; the share or non-share in the operational responsibility of the UK with its United States partner; the nature of warfare that is being fought there, with its asymmetric character, which means that even if we have adjusted to conditions such as the desert and the sun, still the roadside ordnances that cost so many British, American and Iraqi lives continue to confound our military operations in many ways. The question has been raised about the advice of the Foreign Office and whether seasoned Arabists were ignored, or whether the officials were no better than the politicians in forecasting the difficulties that would follow.
Have we subsequently, in the way in which we have addressed the problems and the humanitarian crisis of refugees and displacements, and in the responsibility that we have shown to special groups, such as those who were interpreters for our forces, shown sufficient generosity of spirit? What is the situation now and then in Basra, particularly regarding the terrible plight of women, against whom there has been so much violence? How permanent are the gains in security under the operations of General Petraeus and in our own partnership with Iraqi commanders in Basra? How real are the economic gains that we see now with the growth of the Iraqi economy? How effective is reconstruction when there are still so many difficulties of infrastructure? Will the military and security improvements be followed by real political progress by the Iraqis themselves to allow a more permanent peace to take hold? Many noble Lords asked about the quality of the democratic institution-building that is taking place and whether we have sufficiently understood the nature of Iraqi society and shown sufficient patience for this slow business of building such institutions. Beyond that, there is the issue of Britain's changing posture in Iraq as we draw down the number of our troops in Basra.
All of those are enormously important questions and, as has been acknowledged, many books have been written. Comment was made on Bob Woodward who nowadays is more an industry than an author with three books by him alone. There have been investigations and the noble Lord, Lord King, was too modest to mention the Channel 4 Iraq investigations of which he was one of the chairs. There have been investigations by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hutton, the many books by both participants and observers of this issue. The fact that, in the end, a Chamber such as this is asking questions demonstrates that there is a need to come to more definitive conclusions about so many of these points and to do it in an objective way, as many noble Lords have stressed. Anyone who was left in doubt probably needed only to hear the echoing words of Kipling, read by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, to be reminded of the responsibility that all of us in this Chamber bear—those of us who are Ministers or who were Ministers or in opposition then—when young men and women go to war.
We still come back to the issue, not of if there is an inquiry, but when. Let me take issue with the suggestion that the Baker-Hamilton report in the United States provides a parallel that we could adopt now. With due respect, that report was not an investigation of the kind of issues that have been raised here today; it was a very necessary look at the future options for the United States in moving forward. I, as one who was invited to talk to the members of that investigation, know that it was much more of a policy operation than an inquiry. I was not sworn in to give testimony; there was a very informal exchange with the co-chairs—as was the case for most of those who provided evidence or information to it. It is fair to say that the United States, too—although Congress has had a number of investigations—has still not had that definitive examination of the causes that led to the war and its subsequent conduct.
I would do best to remind the House that the position of this Government is that indeed a time may come—and I suspect definitively will come—when such an inquiry is necessary. But we would still maintain that we have not yet reached it now. The former Foreign Secretary in another place said in June last year:
"I made plain the Government's view that there would come a time when these issues would be explored in the round so that we could learn whatever lessons could be learnt from them".—[Hansard, Commons, 11/6/07; col. 539.]
As we are all aware, reference was made to the investigations relating to both Norway in 1940 and the Dardanelles in 1915. It is not just the argument that carrying out such inquiries while the war is underway might undermine the war effort or support for it. Equally important, on reading up about both cases, was that precisely because the investigations were conducted while operations were still underway, there was not the distance and perspective to offer anything like a definitive final word on what had happened to allow the inquiries to be non-partisan and objective sources of analysis and advice for the future. We owe it to ourselves and everyone who was involved in this venture that when we come to offer such analysis it will stand the test of time and be seen, as has been asked for here, as objective and fair.
Let me turn quickly to some of the key issues that have been raised today and which perhaps do not have to wait for such an inquiry. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, with his long interest in refugees, did not surprise me when he raised the issue. There is now a new appeal for assistance for refugees in Jordan and Syria. He is right to describe it as the most expensive appeal that the UNHCR currently has. It is the most expensive operation with the second largest number of refugees anywhere in the world after Darfur. Britain is looking at what it can do to support that appeal, as we did last year. We have a resettlement programme that was discussed in a Question earlier this week. We shall continue to review that to make sure that we meet our obligations to those who work with us and more broadly to those who fear political persecution.
On the concern that we might have drawn the refugee net too narrowly, let me assure your Lordships that we follow up very carefully to ensure that those who are returned to Iraq because they have failed to secure refugee status find the conditions to allow them to live freely. Given the insecurity in the country, however, we cannot ensure that it is necessarily always safe. We ensure that they face no particular threat because of their political views or ethnic or religious identity.
I have no statistics to offer the noble Baroness on women's issues or, particularly, the violence against women,. However, that formidable fighter for the rights of women, Ann Clwyd, of the other House, remains the Prime Minister's special representative and she continues, with others of us, to raise these issues as firmly and frequently as she can with both the provincial and national authorities in Iraq.
On reconstruction, the fact that there is now growth and some movement on an agreement on using oil revenues that we hope will allow the necessary foreign investment in that sector suggests that not only the security situation but the economic situation have turned in a positive and forward direction.
I conclude by looking forward and picking up the remark made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Owen. The Prime Minister should be credited with managing to bring down the level of our involvement in Basra. There is much more political support for an approach that entails better alignment, if you like, between what we are trying to do and what people think is a reasonable effort for us. It has allowed a de-politicisation of our military operations and a real opportunity for the generals to make the decisions on the troop levels needed and how long they are needed, thereby assuring those who fear we might leave too soon and others who fear the opposite. Besides the Prime Minister's first commitments on bringing down troop levels by the spring, the military situation on the ground and security in Basra will determine the pace of further troop withdrawals.
More generally, looking forward, I think that for now we will have to park our search for definitive answers to the questions raised today. But as I and so many others have said today, the time for an inquiry will come. The absence of an inquiry should not block our agreeing on what we agree about and moving forward. We have heard from noble Lords who took very different views on the war and its correctness when it was initiated—from the debate's sponsor, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who indicated that he supported it at first but now feels a special requirement to know the truth about the intelligence and other information on which he made that decision, to others who opposed the war from the beginning and who equally feel that they carry the burden of wanting to understand for future generations how such a war was entered into.
Let us consider what divided us then and what brings us together now. A reference was made to what Macmillan learnt after Suez. I would argue that this Government have learnt, first, the need to strengthen parliamentary control over the country going to war. That is part of the Prime Minister's constitutional proposals. Secondly, the Security Council needs to be strengthened and not weakened so that it might rubber-stamp such conflicts in future. Its representativeness and authority need to be increased. It needs to be made the high point of the multilateral arrangements and an even stronger force in how we conduct international security affairs.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, suggested that the Conservatives had both deserted Europe and thrown themselves into the arms of Washington. I feel bound to leap to the defence of noble Lords opposite. One of the great surprises of sitting in this Chamber has been to find that if Washington think tanks have spent any money on how to put a "neo-" in front of noble Lords opposite, it has—as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, so eloquently said—been to little effect. I hear little support from the other side for a pro-Washington policy on this. A fairer critique is that the Conservative Party has become the proverbial canoe with no oars left at all, neither a European oar nor a Washington one.
More generally, perhaps we can all agree with the general direction that we are seeking to develop under the Prime Minister, which is to strengthen multilateralism but not as an alternative to strong relationships with Europe and the United States. I have always argued that a strong United Nations without a strong American commitment to it is impossible. Instead, creating a multilateral framework of rules and laws in the security sphere, as in so many others, allows us effectively to play out our alliances in a way which secures global support for our objectives in dealing with situations such as Iraq or Kosovo and our other objectives in completely different areas of life. Something therefore really has come out of the debate: a renewed commitment to multilateralism on both sides of this House.
Equally, out of this debate has come the recognition that there is now a surprising crack of light in Iraq. The security situation is much better than most of us had ever hoped it might be. It has created the possibility for political and economic recovery. It is a fragile and narrow possibility. But in looking over our shoulder at what went wrong, let us not lose sight of this astonishing opportunity and challenge ahead.
If we can work together with our partners in Iraq and in the United States, the United Nations and the European Union, there is still a possibility of resurrecting and recovering some of the ground lost in Iraq and meeting our obligations to try and allow the Iraqi people to have a country of which they can be proud, where they can freely enjoy their right to choose their own Government and make their own destiny.