Foreign Affairs and Defence

Part of Orders of the Day — Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 6:10 pm on 8th November 1990.

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Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East 6:10 pm, 8th November 1990

I was tempted to follow the Foreign Secretary in what he said about NATO and the Community, but much of what I would have wished to say was said in a brilliant speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), and some of the points were made by the right hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce). I shall follow the right hon. Gentleman and the Foreign Secretary in speaking a little on the Gulf.

Perhaps it is not inapposite to say that when I was Defence Secretary and involved very much in Gulf affairs, the father of the right hon. Member for Shoreham was the resident in the Gulf. He was one of the last of Britain's great proconsuls, whose wisdom, experience and sensitivity to the march of events was of inestimable value at that time. When the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) visited the Gulf with the present Foreign Secretary, the thinking of such people taught him that the idea that Britain should go back was simply not on.

I heard from the right hon. Gentleman's father that Kuwait was not prepared to allow us to keep troops there, although we had a treaty for defending Kuwait and the frontier was only a 20-minute drive from the city. We had to keep our troops hundreds of miles away in Bahrain, and the Kuwaiti Government were financing the Free Bahraini Movement, which was trying to get us out of Bahrain as well. Such an experience, which is well known to anyone who has served in the Gulf, should be borne in mind when we consider the attitudes of some Arab Governments to current events.

The debate in September, like the speeches that we have heard so far today, emphasised that the Government have almost the total support of hon. Members for their decision to support the blockade established by the resolution of the Security Council. It has been made clear today, as it was in September, that that is not a blank cheque for future action. It is the possibility and the conditions for the use of force to expel Saddam Hussein to which I want to address my remarks.

It was noticeable in the last debate that hon. Members who had personal experience of war warned how unpredictable war can be. One never knows at the beginning of a war quite how it will end up; weapons on which one is content to rely might not work as effectively in fighting as they work on test ranges. The problems of a war against Iraq are now accepted by almost anyone who reads the newspapers. If we ever have to resort to force, and if we hope to be successful, the plain fact is that the difficulties and dangers of an operation to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait by force must not be underestimated.

General Schwarzkopf, the commander-in-chief, and indeed the commander of British troops if they are used in the Gulf, said that the military problems mean that a war could be as prolonged and bloody as in Vietnam, and for much the same reason. The west is always at a disadvantage fighting an Asian enemy on his own territory, particularly an enemy who attaches less value to human life than our western democracies are liable to do. That was the fatal error made by the French, and later by the Americans, in Vietnam.

There is remarkable agreement on that among Americans who have some experience. Senator Sam Nunn, who is chairman of the Armed Forces Committee of the Senate, and General Schwarzkopf have insisted in recent weeks that the west and its allies in the Gulf must give all other options a chance to work before resorting to the final arbitrament of war.

There has been a notable movement on the political side in the past few weeks. President Bush has wisely decided that, whether or not it is legally possible to rely on article 51 as a justification for the use of force against Iraq, it is politically wise to seek the authority of the United Nations through a specific resolution in the Security Council that endorses military action under agreed conditions. As I understand it, that is the main purpose of Secretary Baker's current tour of the middle east and allied countries. No doubt it will be the main subject of his discussions in London tomorrow.

That does not mean, to answer a question put by a Conservative Back Bencher with whom I had a charming exchange in the last debate, that under no circumstances should Britain act except with total support of a United Nations resolution. It is perfectly conceivable that a resolution might be vetoed by a country that has no direct stake or role in the Gulf or be opposed by tiny countries that oppose the blockade under the existing resolution.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton and, as I understood it, the Foreign Secretary said, it is essential that the alliance that has produced the consensus for the blockade should be maintained if military action is to follow. It is already clear that it will be very difficult, but not necessarily impossible, to maintain the consensus that has made the blockade so successful so far. There are clear misgivings in Moscow about the use of force, and all the hopes that the Foreign Secretary rightly expressed that the Gulf crisis might be the nettle from which we pluck the safety of an enlarged role for the United Nations in creating a new world order would be fatally damaged if the Soviet Union were unable or unwilling to agree to military action.

There are grave misgivings in Japan. I spoke to some of the Japanese leaders earlier this week, and, as the Foreign Secretary will know, it now seems almost certainly that Prime Minister Kaifu will not get the consent of his Parliament to send even non-combatant military personnel to take part in the operation. There are grave misgivings in Germany, reflected in the fact that the German Government, which I believe proposed the motion in Rome that Governments should not support private initiatives, have decided to support the Brandt initiative. There are great misgivings in France, and some of the recent actions of the French Government and some of the remarks made by French leaders have shown how deep those misgivings are.

Most important in some ways is the reaction of the Arab Governments who are supporting the blockade. After Mr. Baker's visit to Cairo a few days ago, the Egyptian Government refused to answer the question whether, if there were resort to war, the Egyptian troops in Saudi Arabia would take part in the operation. The Syrian Government have already expressed deep misgivings about resorting to war and seem to be engaged in a diplomatic campaign against their potential American and British allies in the operation.

Incidentally, there is a tiny point that I should like to put to the Foreign Secretary. Perhaps he will spring to his feet to answer my question. Is it really wise not to give diplomatic recognition to Syria, which is part of the alliance that we are seeking to maintain against Iraq, but at the same time to give diplomatic recognition to Iran, which is little more than neutral in this operation? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can explain this apparent contradiction in the British Government's attitude, or perhaps the reason is one that should never be mentioned in the House.