Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:04 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench 4:04 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I am sure we should all be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for having initiated this debate on a situation which is, in many ways, perhaps the most dangerous and sensitive of any in the world today. I would also like to say that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, once paid me the compliment of saying that, to his surprise, he had agreed with something I had said in a speech. I return the compliment by saying that I agree with almost every word he said in that preceding speech.

I do not propose today to rehearse the many reasons why I and many others still maintain the view that last year's invasion of Iraq has never been convincingly or honestly justified by either the United States Administration or Her Majesty's Government. So long as the full case put forward by the Attorney-General is withheld from us, it is difficult to judge the arguments by which the Cabinet were persuaded to enter the so-called coalition, given the fact that we had repeatedly been assured that regime change was no part of the British Government's policy.

The revelations by Mr Richard Clarke over the past week do not surprise me. Several of us have argued that the obsessive determination of the Bush administration, if not of the President himself, to invade Iraq and change the Iraqi regime long predated the horrors of September 11. Attempts to justify the invasion by linking Saddam Hussein with those horrors are not only dishonest, they also seriously detract from—or, as Mr Clarke has put it "greatly undermine"—the credibility and effectiveness of the so-called war on terror. In those pre-invasion debates, many of us asked "Why now"? Iraq was the wrong target at the wrong time.

I do not know how many of your Lordships will have read a devastating critique of the failure of the Bush Administration's diplomacy towards Iraq, by the former Under-Secretary in the State Department, Mr James Rubin, in the New York Review of Books last year. Mr Rubin underlined the disastrous consequences of placing United States policy towards Iraq solely in the hands of Mr Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon, and of failing to use—indeed, refusing to employ—the experience and skills of American diplomats, many of whom, as I know from my own contacts, have a deep understanding of Iraq and the Middle East. The most serious error was to have linked the war on terror with the attack against Iraq, thereby negating the immediate upsurge of sympathy for the United States after September 11 from virtually every country in the world—some of whom then found themselves branded as members of the infamous Axis of Evil.

But I do not want to concentrate on the past. In Iraq, the top priority must be to ensure security, to enable the Iraqis to take over responsibility for their country again. An early withdrawal of troops—whether American, Spanish, British or from other coalition partners—could have very serious and dangerous consequences for the Iraqi people, some 10,000 to 15,000 of whom are believed already to have lost their lives as a direct consequence of our invasion and occupation of their country. The old lesson that the history of the Middle East should have taught us—that it is easier to enter than to exit—is, I fear, coming home to roost.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, I welcome Her Majesty's Government's continued perseverance in their attempt to maintain tolerable relations with the governments of Iran, Syria and now Libya, against many odds. In this respect, at least, the Government have not been afraid to distance themselves, with our European partners, from the more hard-line antics of the neo-conservatives in Washington. I also suspect, but do not know, that the welcome decision by the United States to withdraw, at least for the time being, what they describe as their "Greater Middle East Initiative" may owe something to the more balanced reservations voiced from this side of the pond.

The Prime Minister is to be congratulated on taking the risk, as he himself put it, of going to Libya last week to talk with Colonel Gaddafi—something which would have been regarded as totally unthinkable even two years ago. I was particularly struck by the positive reaction to his initiative from bereaved relations of the Lockerbie victims, in spite of attempts by some of their interviewers to get them to denounce it. Is the lesson of that visit that we should never regard any mutual hostility as immutable? If we remember our own post-colonial history of dealing with leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta, whom we had once regarded as beyond the pale, is it so unthinkable that both the Americans and the Israelis might soon be prepared to reopen negotiations with the Palestinians, whom they currently denounce as terrorists or whom they have isolated in the ruins of Ramallah?

It is, as always, the situation in Palestine which holds the greatest dangers for all of us. I am glad to see some signs that President Bush may himself be prepared, even as the date of the presidential elections draws near, to take a modest initiative by inviting Prime Minister Sharon to Washington. I do not under-estimate—none of us should—the political difficulties of removing illegal Jewish settlements from Palestinian territory or of dismantling the appalling security fence that cuts deep into Palestinian territory beyond the green line.

It has always amazed me that successive Prime Ministers of Israel, with American approval, have persisted in encouraging more and more illegal settlement in the Occupied Territories. Surely it must have been obvious to all of them that they were creating a rod for the backs of themselves and their successors? If, as Prime Minister Sharon has suggested, all Israeli settlers are to be removed from Gaza, where will they go? I hope that the Minister can reassure us that we will make every effort, both bilaterally and through the Americans, to ensure that they are not transferred to swell the numbers in existing illegal settlements in the West Bank or around Jerusalem. If they are, and if the security fence remains in place, I see no prospect of a viable Palestinian state as part of the two-state solution which President Bush claims to support.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, we all deplore the continued use of suicide bombers and, in particular, the sickening spectacle of young children tricked into believing that killing Israelis will win them a reward in paradise. But the continued Israeli practice of targeted assassinations—rightly condemned in public statements, if not in Security Council votes, by Ministers as illegal—is not only a flagrant breach of international law by a country which prides itself on obeying the rule of law; more tragically, neither targeted assassinations nor the security fence are doing anything to protect and preserve Israel's security or to contribute to the war on terror. Quite the contrary: they are whipping up a surge of resentment against Israeli occupation, expropriation, deprivation and intimidation in the West Bank and Gaza, which no Palestinian authority can possibly be expected to control.

Tragically, the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin appears to have contributed to the decision to postpone this week's Arab summit in Tunis at which the Saudi Government had apparently been ready to revive their peace initiative agreed two years ago at the Arab summit in Beirut.

So is it too late to expect any early and realistic progress on the road map to peace? I think that I agree with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that all is not lost. I hope that I am right. But I also hope that, when she comes to sum up the debate, the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance on this vitally important question. Let us hope that President Bush is now ready, as he promised the Prime Minister in Belfast, to put as much personal energy towards the Arab/Israel situation as the Prime Minister put, and continues to put, towards Northern Ireland. A genuine, determined and balanced American commitment to peace in Palestine, if supported and encouraged by their partners in the quartet, would do more than any military operations or assassinations to contribute towards winning the so-called "war on terror".