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United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:57 pm on 21st March 2011.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission 7:57 pm, 21st March 2011

I have some reservations about what we are doing. I am pleased to see the Foreign Secretary in his place; I hope that he will answer some of the reservations that have been voiced today.

My first point is a House of Commons point, because I received an absolute assurance from the Leader of the House two weeks ago on the Floor of the House that before we went to war in future, there would be a substantive vote in the House of Commons. When we went to war in the Falklands, the House of Commons sat on a Saturday. We have to establish the principle—this is not just a House of Commons point; it is a serious and important constitutional point—that in future when we go to war, the House of Commons should vote first.

Secondly, I have a number of questions about what we are doing in this operation. I voted against the Iraq war, because although it was ostensibly about dealing with weapons of mass destruction, in fact, as we know, it was about regime change. A lot of people have said that the current situation is very different, but is it? We are told that it is about humanitarian objectives, but is it not, in fact, about regime change, just as in Iraq? We need to ensure that our objectives are entirely and only humanitarian, and about protecting the people in Benghazi.

In one sense, the current situation is very different from the situation in Iraq, because at least there we were determined to go in and achieve regime change. Speaker after speaker has asked what we are going to achieve with the current operation. People say that we cannot always foretell the future and that that is not an excuse for doing nothing, but surely if we set off on a journey, it is generally a good idea to know the destination. Planes do not occupy ground. Missiles can destroy tanks, but they do not destroy regimes. Bombing Tripoli might bolster the regime’s support among the population there—indeed, it already has.

I have already asked the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House—no answer can be given—what will happen if the current operation just produces a stalemate. What will we do then? Will we be able to resist the moral pressure to get more and more involved, and to send in troops? There is absolutely no enthusiasm in this country for getting involved in a third war in the Muslim world. Aircraft can stop things happening—they can stop tanks entering Benghazi and I will support the operation to that extent—but they cannot make things happen.

A lot of lazy thinking has gone on along the lines that the regime was so unpopular that simply imposing a no-fly zone would make it fade away. Will that happen? Where is our strategic interest in Libya, which after all is 1,500 miles away? What are Egypt and Tunisia doing? They are its neighbours. Why is there not a single Arab plane in action at this moment?

We know that the first casualty of war is truth. The second casualty may well be a UN resolution, so that we are sucked into something far beyond what we have voted for. What are Russia and China doing, or rather not doing? Why is Iran silent? Is it because it supports Islamist irregulars in the east and is already there? Why would Gaddafi need to contest a no-fly zone if he can simply infiltrate troops? Is this a humanitarian war or is it a military war to change the regime? Will our efforts simply make Libya into another long-term brutal Sudan-type war?

It is often assumed that there are good guys and bad guys, but in fact Cyrenaica, in the east and controlled by the rebels, has always been separated from Tripolitania in the west. The two parts only became one state in 1934 and there has been a long-term dispute or semi-civil war between them for a long time. Indeed, in the 18th century Tripolitania invaded Cyrenaica and there were many massacres. History is extremely complicated; this region is very complicated, and we need to understand what is going on.

I was pleased to see the Defence Secretary in his seat. The old adage from Theodore Roosevelt is:

“Speak softly and carry a big stick”,

but we have been in danger of speaking loudly and breaking our sticks in two in the strategic defence review. Reading the British press, one would imagine that the whole world is hanging on to our words. They are not. I was reading the French press, and there was little mention of Britain. In Italy, no doubt, they believe that Berlusconi is taking the lead. There is only one capital that matters and that is Washington.

Oratory is not enough; we need air power. How many Tornados do we have? I believe that the strategic defence and security review was a disaster—as big a disaster as the Nott review, which was finally overtaken by the Falklands war. I hope that this operation overtakes the disastrous defence review. France has an aircraft carrier; Spain has an aircraft carrier; Russia has an aircraft carrier; the USA has 11 aircraft carriers; and we have to fly a round trip of 3,000 miles to impose our military force. By the way, all we have done is send three Tornados and two cruise missiles.