Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:28 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Skidelsky Lord Skidelsky Crossbench 5:28 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for initiating the debate, I agree with those noble Lords who say that we should look forward and not back. The question whether the Prime Minister deceived himself, was misled by the intelligence services or deceived the public on the question of weapons of mass destruction remains important and troubling for our domestic politics, but it is irrelevant to the future of the Middle East. We can also agree that the issue of weapons of mass destruction was not central to the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein; together with the far-fetched claim that the invasion of Iraq was in fact mandated by the Security Council, it furnished the legal pretext for a war decided on grounds that could not be openly avowed.

I have heard so often in this House the words that we have heard today—so eloquent, and appropriately so, in their expressions of outrage and horror at the suffering and in reciting the statistics of suffering, and so sensible in their prescriptions. There was unanimous agreement on the desirability of a two-state solution, with the notable exception of the well reasoned dissent of the noble Lord, Lord Desai. However, those words seem a world away from the ambitious design to reshape the Middle East, which has been hatched in the corridors and environs of the White House and the Pentagon over the past few years.

At an early stage in the run up to the war, the Prime Minister committed himself to the American project, with Britain cast in its now familiar role as junior partner, and it is about the sustainability of that project that I want to say a few words. I believe that that is the essential context of the debate that we are having in the House today.

The project has two aspects. The first is to change the balance of power in the Middle East in favour of the United States and its allies. The key interests here are the security of oil supplies, the security of Israel, as defined by the Israelis, and security against terrorism.

The second aspect is more idealistic. It is to westernise the Middle East, starting with Iraq, by spreading the western values of democracy, free markets and the rule of law throughout the region. This is the Wilsonian side of the project. I am not saying that idealism is simply a cloak for realpolitik. The two motives co-existed in different proportions in the minds and hearts of all of those who undertook this audacious adventure. In fact, the two aspects are connected. As the Prime Minister said in a speech in Chicago in April 1999:

"The spread of our values makes us safer".

To anyone with a sense of history, this combination of motives recalls nothing so much as late 19th century imperialism. There is the same mixture of commerce, security and moralism and, I should add, adventure. Moreover, in the ethical version of imperialism, to which the Prime Minister is heir, forcible interventions were not ends in themselves, but merely the means to spread western standards, a form of trusteeship later made explicit in the League of Nations mandates established in the Middle East and elsewhere after the First World War. Ethical imperialism was to be a preparation for independence.

The question is whether a project of this kind makes sense at the start of our own century; whether, in the modern phrase, it is sustainable. I do not think so. Let me consider first the idealistic aspect of the project of forced westernisation. America has never had an imperial vocation. The United States was born in an anti-colonial war, and the identity forged in that struggle has shaped its outlook ever since. In fact the agreement signed by the Iraqi interim governing council and the US-UK Coalition Provisional Authority stipulates the restoration of full sovereignty for Iraq on 30 June of this year, with a coalition contingent remaining,

"at the request of the transitional administration", solely to help to guarantee stability. Yesterday's imperialists never thought that democracy could be brought about in one year.

The second point is that in its idealistic form imperialism was a failure. With the notable exception of India, the post-colonial world filled up not with the peace-loving democracies of the liberal imagination but with unstable dictatorships and failing states, which exhibit a rich patchwork of repression and revolt, war and civil war, brigandage and random violence. We run a huge risk of recreating this cycle by our intervention in the Middle East.

I think that the Americans have in their minds the more successful interventions in Japan in 1867 and 1945 and in Germany after the end of the Second World War. But there will be a high degree of scepticism as to whether these are useful precedents for coercive intervention in the Middle East.

Nor do I think that the Realpolitik aspect of the American project can succeed. I do not think that the security of oil supplies can be assured in face of the radical instability in the regions through which the pipelines run. I do not think that the security of Israel can best be protected by planting American bases in Iraq. In fact, it is a fair bet that the main effect of the American military presence will be to harden the intransigence of both sides. It will suck the Americans into underwriting Israeli expansion and, contrary to what one or two noble Lords have said, that is a serious project, entertained by powerful groups in Israel and it is not a two state solution, but a solution that many Israelis see as being the only solution. No one hears much about the Middle East peace process today. On the contrary, Israel's programme of targeted assassinations is a disturbing sign that it now feels let off the leash. I am not sure what the implications are of Sharon's offer to withdraw from Gaza. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, is right in his optimism about that.

Further, the American project brings no security against terrorism: it inflames terrorism and makes us a prime target. I agree profoundly with George Soros when he writes that international terrorism should be treated as a crime, not as an act of war, requiring for its prevention or punishment good police work—such as we have just seen in London—not military action.

Finally, the unilateral nature of the project will, sooner or later, conjure up a world balance of power against the United States. The world does not consist of one giant and a collection of pigmies. China, Russia, India, and France and Germany in combination are great powers and they will draw closer together to resist overweening American pretension, for the simple reason that they will feel less secure. Do we want a new arms race? That is one of the implications of American unilateralism.

For all these reasons, I conclude that the fruits of the project are likely to be bitter. I think the best that can be hoped for is the emergence of quasi-legitimate client states in the Middle East with sufficient protection by the coalition forces to maintain a semblance of order and to allow some economic progress to take place, and, therefore, some gradual healing of wounds. But that is the best outcome, in my view, and not the most likely.

Having been so critical of the actions taken by the United States and by my own country, I would not wish to deny for a moment that the world does face problems of security and human rights that should be tackled effectively. I believe, with the Prime Minister, that the doctrine of national sovereignty does need to be qualified on account of the spillover effects of national policies and that terrorism does pose a security threat. But I insist, as I have said many times, that there has to be international agreement—at a minimum among the great powers themselves—about when it is right to intervene, and about the purposes and machinery of intervention. The Security Council of the United Nations remains the best forum for hammering out the terms of such an agreement. Further interventions of the kind we have seen in the Middle East carry the grave risk of igniting the flames of religious and racial hatred and destroying our best hopes for a secure and peaceful future.