The Gulf

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:47 pm on 11th December 1990.

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Photo of Mr Patrick Duffy Mr Patrick Duffy , Sheffield, Attercliffe 6:47 pm, 11th December 1990

The likelihood of war in the Gulf seems to have diminished a little. The confrontation remains stark, but the atmo-sphere has eased. This may be deceptive. For, even before Saddam Hussein's decision to release the hostages, it had become clear that the balance of advantage has passed to him, and this was predictable. Saddam Hussein's Iraq had come to present a face of monolithic resolution to the world, in marked contrast to the discordant voices of the west. As the timetable of the allied military preparedness to act appeared to slip, public doubts grew about whether war is justifiable, acceptably feasible or even likely to take place.

Since August, President Bush and his team have done their best to persuade Americans and their representatives in Congress that the threat of imminent war against Iraq must be maintained, but the critical clinching reason for a fight still eludes the Administration. The President has been forced on the defensive as he seeks to convince the world and domestic opinion that all the options for peace have been exhausted before the momentous decision to go to war in the Gulf is taken. What will be the position if those options are kept open for a further 12 months, say on the ground of sanctions? I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) is no longer in his place.

The memory of Vietnam is also a factor in the growing peace movement in America, as is the suspicion that once again American youth is being called upon to die in defence of Europe's interests. This lack of cohesion and solidarity has painfully exposed the underlying divisions in the western alliance, and reinforced the need to see European security in a broader global context, and for the alliance to think long and hard concerning its future policy towards threats beyond its traditional area of competence.

In contrast, Saddam has shown that his nerves are stronger than those of western democracies. He knows that talking will not by itself stop war, but he also knows that it offers him his best hope of exploiting American domestic weakness and dividing the international alliance against him. He will have been encouraged by the weekend headlines in our own quality press. The Sunday Times, for example, stated: Iraq scents victory as Gulf peace deal looms",The Sunday Telegraph stated: America insists: we're not going soft on Saddam". Those were the headlines just two days ago.

Yet, despite all that has happened since August, the essentials remain unchanged. The invasion of Kuwait in August was an act of aggression. The United Nations, in the most impressive fashion, acted against Saddam Hussein. Now that the United States and the United Kingdom and some of their allies have committed their armed forces and prestige, the blow to international order would be intolerable if Saddam were able to extract any victory or face-saving compromise.

Saddam has also turned the Gulf crisis into a crisis for democracy. He has raised with brutal clarity the central issue at stake: are western democracies resilient enough to resist blackmail or are they too short-sighted to perceive threats to their longer-term interests?

So there can be no compromise on Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. There can be no question of profit to the aggressor. If aggression is permitted to succeed, other acts of brutality by bigger nations against their smaller neighbours will be encouraged. So there can be no weakening of our position. However, there can be no western objection to subsequent talks about disputed territories and their borders. Nor can there be any valid objection to a possible mutual non-aggression pact, despite the repeated demand of The Sunday Times for Saddam to be toppled.

There can be no accommodation of the issue of linkage. Saddam has been demanding that Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait be linked to Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories and Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. This is unacceptable: neither Israel nor Syria can be charged with aggression, as Saddam can. However, both issues must resume their place at the very top of the middle east agenda if Iraq withdraws from Kuwait. Palestinians, no less than Kuwaitis, are entitled to equal justice under international law.

What disturbs me most of all is the extent to which the retreat into moral as well as political isolationism by certain sections of western opinion, some of which are represented by hon. Members on both sides of the House, threatens to undermine any chance of the United Nations ever asserting a collective will again.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East referred to the 1930s. Perhaps I can take just a few seconds to tell the House that I did my first canvassing for the Labour party when I was 12 years old at the behest of my headmaster. I canvassed for the League of Nations and for what was then Labour party policy—collective security. Ten years later, I was a casualty of war and for many years was 100 per cent. disabled. I am still 30 per cent. disabled. I am sorry to have to say that because I know that the House does not really want to listen to it, but I must say it to leave the House in no doubt that I do not address the issues of war and peace lightly. By God, I know and I reflect on the missed opportunities of the 1930s. I do not want collective security to fail again. That is the big issue for me. Saddam must not be given any ground for believing that he can undermine international order, that there is any weakening in our resolve or that this country and our allies will not go through with what they have threatened for so many months. What is certain is that no future challenge can even be credibly approached by the United Nations unless the present challenge is overcome.

I suspect that most hon. Members recognise that sanctions will not be effective within an acceptable time scale. I listened to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East with great respect, as I always do, but, if it comes, the war will have a legal and moral basis. We all recognise that war is probable, although the timing will be subject to the constraints of campaigning weather, but the present "window" will last only until the end of February. We all profoundly regret that probability of war. However, if we will the end, we must be especially concerned for the means and particularly for our service men and women in the Gulf area. We must have the greatest confidence in them, especially those who will shortly come together—I hope—in the United Kingdom's first armoured division. I know and have the greatest respect and admiration for the United States' first and second armoured divisions, but a more effective or distinguished fighting unit will not be deployed in the Gulf than our own first armoured division. Our prayers will always be with the service men and women.

However, none of us can dispute that a compromise that leaves Saddam with any portion of his booty would be a lasting blow to the interests of the whole world. This is not a time for dithering and wobbling. I suggest with great respect that our resolution must match that of our fighting men if we are to be worthy of them.