Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:59 pm on 17th December 1998.

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Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 5:59 pm, 17th December 1998

I well understand the wish of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) to keep public opinion on side in this operation. He cited the example of what happened in 1990–91, but this operation is surely more difficult than the one undertaken at that time, when it was possible to have a clear-cut aim. That aim was to expel the aggressor—Iraq—from Kuwait. This time, there is no absolute, certain aim for the short term.

All that we can say is that we want to destroy to the maximum Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and his capacity to build more. It will be a much longer process than that of 1990–91. However, I agree with the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, who made a wise speech, showing his experience. It was not frenzied, gung-ho or enthusiastic, and that same tone characterised most of the other speeches that we have heard today. It contained a recognition of the risks to our airmen who, as the Prime Minister said, are probably still in the air and still risking their lives. It also contained a recognition of the risk to civilians on the Iraqi side, so we proceed not with enthusiasm but with regret and a recognition of the dangers. However, there is also a recognition of the principles involved.

I hope that the House is sending a very clear message of the overwhelming all-party support for the action that the Government have taken and that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set forth so responsibly earlier today. The speeches made by the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Foreign Secretary and the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, show that there is an all-party coalition, and rightly so, telling the dictator that he has gone too far and that this country and this Parliament overwhelmingly support the action of the Government and our allies.

I shall not repeat the history of the situation, because the Prime Minister clearly set out its genesis in 1990–91 and the unfinished business before us. We can perhaps pick up the history in the two crises that developed earlier this year. The first, in February, almost led to the launch of an air attack on Iraq, but Kofi Annan then visited Baghdad. A Security Council resolution made it clear that Saddam Hussein's actions would have the "severest consequences", which could only mean military consequences, if he again failed to comply with the promises that he had made.

A second crisis developed with Saddam Hussein's further obstruction, which culminated in November when he again broke his solemn and binding promises almost as soon as they were made. We issued a threat, similar to that which had been made in February, that, if there was clear evidence of obstruction, there would be no warning and we would launch an air attack.

The evidence is crystal clear. It was provided in the United Nations Special Commission's report, not by one senior inspector but by all UNSCOM inspectors who had experienced Saddam's obstruction. A warning was given in very clear terms that, if Saddam Hussein's promises were broken, and if there was evidence that they had been broken, there would inevitably be an air attack.

We would have looked foolish and lacked credibility if we had not responded, if we had got to the point of being about to launch our missiles again, only for there to be yet another United Nations visit and yet another promise from Saddam Hussein, along the lines of, "You know me; next time I'll do better." Such an outcome would have had the most unfortunate consequences, not only for this operation but for the credibility of the international community in other forums—in Kosovo, for example. It is clear that we could not simply continue to bow to the promises of Saddam Hussein.

There is no easy solution when dealing with Saddam Hussein. Inaction would not have been satisfactory. Indeed, it would have sent a clear signal to Saddam Hussein that he could do what he liked and get away with it, and we would have lost all credibility. However, the military option has serious implications and raises many questions about the nature of the international mandate. Ultimately, NATO, the west or the international community cannot always await a specific endorsement from the United Nations and cannot always expect to wait for China, or any other permanent member of the Security Council, to agree. The window of opportunity was limited because Ramadan starts this weekend, and I certainly do not accept that domestic matters in the United States were relevant in this context.

Clearly, all actions can have adverse consequences. All are dangerous and all must be entered into with great caution, but it is the least undesirable option to say that there is clear evidence that promises have been broken, and to act accordingly. Every diplomatic possibility of dealing with Saddam Hussein has been exhausted.

There will almost certainly be some success in the short term, but where do we go from here? The key question is, "Where now?" If, as is likely, a substantial part—perhaps the greater part—of Saddam Hussein's capacity and materiel is destroyed, it is still unlikely that the UNSCOM inspectors will be allowed back into Iraq. We shall then have to rely on signals intelligence, human intelligence, defectors, aerial surveillance and so on. It will be much more difficult to monitor what is happening.

The official objectives are clear—to reduce Saddam's capability to use and build weapons of mass destruction and to diminish the threat that he poses to his region. We shall almost certainly achieve those objectives in the short and medium term, but he will still be there. So long as he is, the threat will continue—we must be ready to counter it as and when necessary.

All that we can hope to do during that time is, first, to isolate Saddam within his own region and to build on the reasonable consensus that exists in the Arab states. Secondly, we must use monitoring to contain his capacity to cause mayhem for his neighbours. It will not be easy. The outlook is somewhat bleak, and there are no simple solutions. All that we can do is affirm our clear commitment to ensuring that Saddam Hussein does not go unrestrained, and work with the forces in the region to ensure regional stability.

Had we done nothing at this time, which was the alternative, we should have lost credibility and simply encouraged Saddam Hussein. I am confident that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members will join the all-party coalition and support the Government's clear action.