First Day

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 5:42 pm on 7th November 1990.

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Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Chesterfield 5:42 pm, 7th November 1990

In the concluding passages of her speech, the Prime Minister used words that can only be interpreted as a warning that this country will soon be going to war with the United States against Iraq. I agree with the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) that Britain is a junior partner. In the last debate on the subject, I said that we were a minor factor. However, we are more than advisers, because in the past two days the British Government have agreed that British forces are to be under the operational command of the United States. Therefore, we shall be dragged i n at the moment when President Bush decides that he wishes to go to war with Iraq. The House will not be consulted in any way because war making in Britain is by royal prerogative, exercised by the Crown without a requirement to come to Parliament. In the United States, there is a requirement that a declaration of war has to be approved by the Senate, and war powers legislation limits the President's executive power. We have no such safeguards.

This is our first opportunity in the new Session to discuss the Gulf crisis. It is the first opportunity to do so since the recall of Parliament on 6 and 7 September, since when a great deal has happened. I shall relate what has happened in the past two months. First, the military build-up has gone on apace. An enormous American military force has already reached, or is likely to reach, a total of 250,000 men in Saudi Arabia, to which have been added some British forces which, although not inconsiderable in their strike power, in no way compare in numbers with the American forces. Other countries have also been brought in and the clear message has come from the President and the Prime Minister that the sanctions may or may not work, but the most effective method is to threaten war. Whether, in the last passages of her speech, the Prime Minister was using psychological warfare to warn Saddam Hussein that war was inevitable or whether war is really being planned, we shall not know It is an old saying that truth is the first casualty of war.

However one looks at it, it is almost certain that, having moved a force of that magnitude to the middle east, the President will have to use that force. Although political decisions determine the deployment of military forces, when those forces have been deployed, the generals say to their political masters, "Use us or withdraw us." They cannot be left there for ever. That is another reason for anxiety.

We know that President Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons, the American forces have formidable weapons, including chemical ones, the United States has nuclear weapons, the British forces there have nuclear weapons and the operational command of those forces will be under the United States. Therefore, it is at least possible that it will be open to an American President to instruct the British forces to use their nuclear weapons, were that to be thought operationally necessary. In those circumstances, the House is bound to ask: what is the proper response to the situation? Is it right that the only way of dealing with this crisis is by threatening war, and possibly making war, when the military position makes that possible, the forces are fully deployed and the weather conditions are right?

Since the House last debated the matter, world opinion has changed rapidly from the mood of high belligerence when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The original basis on which troops were sent in was to defend Saudi Arabia. As the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North properly said, according to the speeches made by the President and the Prime Minister, the objectives of the campaign have already been totally transformed. Now, they include not only the total withdrawal of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait—as the United Nations quite properly demands—but that compensation should be paid, there should possibly be a war crimes tribunal in which President Saddam Hussein would be arraigned before a world court and his military capacity should be destroyed.

It is not uncommon in military circles now to hear talk of the "nightmare scenario." What is that? It is that Saddam Hussein might actually withdraw from Kuwait. If he were to do so, the Anglo-American case for attacking Iraq would have disappeared, as would the other objectives of securing compensation, destroying his nuclear and military capacity or bringing him to a war crimes tribunal.

It is hard to rely on public opinion polls, but there is no evidence from those that I have seen of the readiness of the British people to go to war outside the United Nations. It is strange that the Prime Minister, who has laid such emphasis on United Nations action, should be contemplating a war that would not be under the United Nations' authority. I am no international lawyer, but it is arguable that article 51 of the United Nations charter says that armed force can be used in self-defence only up to the moment that the United Nations takes the matter on board, which it has already done by imposing the most rigorous sanctions on Iraq.

Anyone who knows anything about the Iraqi economy will know that sanctions are immensely powerful in a country that is a major oil producer and whose exports of oil go through two pipelines, one in Turkey and one in Saudi-Arabia—both of which have already been cut by sanctions. If war is undertaken outside the United Nations and the charter's provisions, we too shall be in breach of international law. Those are some of the factors that have influenced public opinion against war. In the United States, there has been no great readiness to support the idea of war even from those on the extreme right—the old isolationists,—who see no great American interest in a war with Iraq. I must refer also to the American peace movement and to some courageous people in the United States armed forces who, as conscientious objectors, have declined to go to the Gulf because they do not believe that this is a just war.

In this country, the opposition to war is also strong. In the rest of the world it is growing rapidly, and for obvious reasons. First, the increase in the oil price since the crisis began is already beginning to have catastrophic effects on third-world countries that have depended on supplies of oil at the old price. If a war broke out, the price of oil would go to $100 or $200 a barrel, and that would bankrupt the third world. Many Asian countries have had nationals working in Kuwait and Iraq sending back their remittances. Those remittances have stopped, and that has already had a serious effect.

No one in his senses can believe that there would be genuine world support for what President Bush and the Prime Minister appear to mean to do: to go to war. One reason for that—we had better speak plainly—is the total lack of moral authority on the part of those advancing the argument. I do not want to be personal in these matters—I do not have to be. The United States invaded Grenada, and Reagan's memoirs show that the Prime Minister was not fully informed. That was an act of international aggression. The United States went into Panama, and 3,000 people were killed—that was a breach of international law—on the basis that Panama was America's "back yard". I hope that I will not be misunderstood when I say that it could be argued that Kuwait was Saddam Hussein's "back yard", if geographical location is to be used as justification for greater powers occupying smaller ones.