The Gulf

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:07 pm on 15th January 1991.

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Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East 6:07 pm, 15th January 1991

This is the third time in my nearly 40 years in the House when I have watched a great nation sleep-walking to disaster with its eyes open and its mind closed. The first occasion was Suez in 1956, the second was the long tragedy of the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and I fear that on this occasion Britain and the United States are sleep-walking together in the Gulf. In all three cases the central problem has been the inability of Governments to accept the facts about the consequences of their actions that have been put to them by their own advisers, allied with a quite stupefying lack of proportion.

Britain embarked on the Suez enterprise in 1956 when eastern Europe was in turmoil and we knew that the Soviet Union was having to decide whether to intervene in Hungary. The United States intervened in Vietnam in the belief that if it did not win that war, all the dominoes in the world would fall. It lost the war and the only domino that fell was a communist domino in Cambodia. In this case we are contemplating war when 15 million Africans are threatened with death by famine and we know that we will not have the money to support them if we engage in a war.

We know that free trade between the developed countries of the world is threatened by the collapse of the GATT talks. Nobody has time to worry about that because of the imminent war, although Britain and the United States are engaged in a recession. We see eastern Europe's attempt to restore democracy crippled by a tripling of oil prices brought about by the Soviet Union, followed by the doubling of oil prices caused by the Gulf crisis and a further doubling or tripling, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Monetary Fund, it' there is war in the Gulf. Finally, we see the Soviet leaders trying to take decisions of historic importance on how to deal with revolt among their nationalities at a moment when those in the west who might influence their choice are so anxious to retain Soviet support for war in the Gulf that they are refusing to say what they really think. I accept what the Foreign Secretary said about that, but what action will follow his rude words we have yet to discover.

Against that background, it is surely madness to embark on war if any alternative is available. Is war necessary to achieve the objectives agreed by the United Nations resolution that was passed a month or so ago? We are assured by the head of the CIA, no less, that it is not. He told the United States Congress in great detail that sanctions were already having a major effect on the civilian economy of Iraq and that within three to nine months they would have a major effect in crippling Iraq's military capability.

When Mr. Cheney, the Defence Secretary, was faced with those statements and his own statements to the same effect, made even as recently as last December, he preferred to use other arguments for not persisting with sanctions. The first was that we cannot any longer allow the Kuwaitis to be submitted to the brutality of the occupying forces. So far, 2,000 Kuwaitis have been killed, but, as I pointed out to the Prime Minister earlier today, the Financial Times this morning reports a senior member of the exiled Kuwaiti ruling family—which, incidentally, left behind 275 heavy tanks and 480 armoured vehicles for the Iraqis to take over and use against us, because it was not warned of the imminent attack, of which the CIA had warned the President two days earlier—as saying: We have already lost a lot of our infrastructure. So we really don't have a lot to lose. I don't want it to be flattened, but, if the flattening of Kuwait is the liberation of Kuwait, I would have that. Let us have no more crocodile tears about the fate of the Kuwaiti people. We undoubtedly feel deeply for them, but a war will subject them to far worse suffering than they have yet endured under Saddam Hussein.

We were told by Mr. Cheney that if we continue with sanctions the coalition will fall apart. All the evidence of the past few days is that if we embark on war the coalition may fall apart. We have, already, major differences between the United States and Britain on the one hand and all the European members of the coalition on the other, which is symbolised by Britain's support of America's refusal to support Mitterrand's proposals for last-minute negotiations, although they are already supported by Germany, Italy, Spain and, we now hear, the Soviet Union.

We are told that our military power is at its peak, but we were told by the American generals that it would not be at its peak for at least another month. We still have to get agreement among the members of the coalition on the command and control of a war. When I raised this question with the Secretary of State for Defence in a recent debate, he said that it was quite improper for me to raise it. I tell the Foreign Secretary, who has some experience of the peace-time Army, that to go into a war with six large contingents, of which only two are under agreed command structure, and in which the French, Saudis, and Syrians are operating the same weapons as the Iraqi opponent, is to invite mutual catastrophe on a devastating scale. In Vietnam, the Americans lost 10,000 of their 65,000 casualties through such a muck-up at the hands of their own forces.

When I consider that we are contemplating a war without formal agreement that the Saudis and the Muslim contingents will join in, I feel very much like the German admiral who, when the multilateral force was explained to him some time ago, replied, "I would rather swim." This is a serious matter because if we go to war without that sorted out, we shall risk unnecessary mutual slaughter of the members of the coalition.

Although we cannot be certain, the war will probably involve an appalling loss of life—we have been told so by the military concerned—economic disaster and political instability in the middle east for at least a generation. It may also have a long-term effect on the willingness of the United States to continue accepting international responsibilities. We are already faced with attacks from all sides in Congress about the unwillingness of the Europeans and Japanese to share the burden. If the war has the consequences which I fear, and which were predicted by many people in congressional hearings in the United States, we could find America withdrawing and Britain being beached offshore on the edge of Europe, having lost its relationship with the Europeans, on which we thought the Foreign Secretary set so much store.

I hope, at this last moment, that the Government will change their mind about the French initiative and will support the view taken by all our European partners, except the Danes, and by the European members of the coalition. If we are committed to war, we shall do everything to support our troops. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and I fought with our troops, although we regarded the Government of the day as responsible for a war that would have been unnecessary if they had taken the right measures in earlier years. If we are committed to this dreadful gamble, I hope that we shall continue to press for peace and an end to the killing at the earliest possible moment on the basis of the United Nations resolutions. That, again, is a matter on which I hope the Government will, for the first time, show some independence of Washington.