Middle East and Afghanistan

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:41 pm on 5th December 2006.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs 3:41 pm, 5th December 2006

My Lords, I welcome the debate. I particularly welcome the large number of speakers from the Cross Benches. One of the many positive effects of the partial reform of the House of Lords, which we have undertaken in the past eight years, has been a much more active and expert contribution from the Cross Benches, which we used to have when I first came to the Chamber. We benefit from that particularly in debates on foreign affairs.

Our main focus in this debate must be on the linked crises in the Middle East, on the British, European and NATO engagement with those crises, on the parallel NATO commitment to Afghanistan, and the strain that those operations place on Britain's Armed Forces. My noble friend Lord Garden will deal later with military overstretch, and my noble friend Lady Williams will say rather more on Afghanistan. I want to focus primarily on the Middle East and on the appropriate balance to be struck between British, European, transatlantic and UN engagement in British diplomacy over the coming months.

Nevertheless, I have to say something first about how we reached the situation in which we find ourselves. As the Irishman said to the traveller, "We wouldn't have started from here". British policy, following the ideologically driven mistakes of the Bush Administration's policy, has contributed to chaos in Iraq, a loss of six years in attempts to bring together the two sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the spillover of that conflict into Lebanon. In the United States, the voters have just exercised their rights to disapprove of the mess that their Administration has led them into, and their disapproval of President Bush in particular.

It is extraordinary that President Bush's closest supporter in the attempt to impose democracy by force on Iraq, Tony Blair, is still in office. It is almost as extraordinary that he has managed to avoid effective parliamentary scrutiny of the deceptions that led the UK into war in Iraq, the commitment of Britain to follow US policy, and the failure to exert any significant influence over that policy. I welcome the Minister's repeated emphasis in his opening speech on the sovereign and independent quality of the decisions that Her Majesty's Government are now making. I understand why he feels it necessary to stress that point against the record of the past four years.

Fifty years ago, a British Prime Minister committed this country to intervention in the Middle East on falsely presented evidence, without the full support of his Cabinet, and after deliberately misleading Parliament about the purpose of the operation. After an initial patriotic wobble, the Labour Party recognised that this was a betrayal of Britain's values and interests, and led the demands for Eden's resignation. Four years ago, it was a Labour Prime Minister who led the country into war in the Middle East on false premises, committing Britain to support an American operation over which we had no influence and which was intended to reshape first Iraq and then the greater Middle East as a whole to fit a neo-conservative design.

An initial patriotic and party-loyalty wobble in support of the Prime Minister was understandable, but I cannot see how the traditional values of the Labour movement—internationalism, open diplomacy, the promotion of a peaceful world order—are compatible with the drift of the Labour Government's Middle East policy over the past four years. We have bumped along behind a misjudged American occupation, deliberately excluded from influence over that occupation, while sharing with the United States the opprobrium of the Arab and Muslim world which the Iraq war and subsequent occupation have attracted. Yet the Labour Benches have remained almost silent and the Prime Minister is still there. I am proud that my party has stood firm in support of progressive international values while the Labour Government have forgotten them.

But we are where we are and the focus of this debate must be on what direction we should now take. The King of Jordan last week reminded us of the dangers of our current situation: that the Middle East could face three linked civil wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine, unless Governments within the region and states outside work together to avert them.

The British Government have least influence over the situation in Iraq. Central Iraq is now close to open civil war in four of the 18 provinces, as the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, points out, but with nearly half of Iraq's population. Inter-communal killings have been rising. The Iraqi army is struggling to defend a Government who have only a very limited legitimacy. In the southern, British sector violence has also risen, including attacks on British forces. The occupation itself has now become as much a provocation as a protection against civil conflict. We do not yet know whether the Bush Administration will choose to raise the number of troops in a final attempt to impose a degree of order, or reduce them in the hope that the Iraqi army can now cope. But we should not simply follow whatever line emerges from Washington after the publication of the Iraq Study Group report. We should be putting the future of Iraq on to the agenda of a regional Middle East conference, drawing in all of Iraq's neighbours and co-ordinating the gradual withdrawal of British forces with their advice and assistance in preventing internal conflict from spreading further.

Iran is one of Iraq's most important neighbours. It is also one of Afghanistan's most important neighbours. I am struck, as I follow the appallingly misunderstood quality of the debate in Washington, by the absence of historical context and understanding. I read a few weeks ago an official in Washington quoted as saying that they have to resist Iran trying to establish itself as a regional power in the Middle East. Iran was a regional power in the Middle East long before the Pilgrim Fathers reached Massachusetts. Trying to prevent that seems to me to be a little idiotic.

The current regime in Tehran is authoritarian and nationalist. Its anti-western turn reflects, in part, the mistakes of American policy over the past 25 years—supporting Iraq in its war with Iran; shooting down an Iranian airliner; cutting off direct contacts; and finally, labelling Iran as part of the "axis of evil". It is difficult to persuade the Iranian regime to abandon the enrichment of uranium when it is surrounded by American forces in the Gulf and in states to the east, west and north, with Washington rhetoric still talking about bombing raids. We on these Benches have supported the efforts of the British, French and German Foreign Ministers to keep contacts open with Tehran. We cannot exclude Iran from negotiations, either on the future of Iraq or on Afghanistan. We need their co-operation and we gain already some co-operation towards both countries. Iranian influence over movements within Lebanon and Palestine also makes it a player there. In spite of the many unpleasant characteristics of that regime, our Government should continue their effort to build bridges to it, together with our European partners.

The same logic applies to Syria, a nasty regime in many ways, but a necessary player in any effort to resolve current conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine. Syrian intervention in Lebanese politics reflects its assumption and its recollection that the Lebanon was historically part of greater Syria. But we should not forget that the Israelis, Americans, French and others have also claimed intervention rights of different sorts within Lebanon. Our party has also supported our Government's attempts to engage with Syria, while recognising that Britain's image in Damascus as the messenger-boy of Washington does not make engagement easy.

On all sides, however, it is recognised that the Israel-Palestine conflict is at the heart of the regional disorder, and of the alienation of Arab and Muslim opinion from the West. The Bush Administration invaded Iraq, after all, partly because of the widespread belief in Washington that,

"the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad":

that removal of Saddam Hussein, ideally followed by regime change forced in Tehran, would enable the Israelis to dictate their preferred settlement to the occupied Palestinians. Chaos in Iraq has strengthened Iran instead—and weakened Israel's position, so increasing Israeli anxiety. Israeli and American refusal to talk to a Palestinian Administration led by Hamas, like the refusal to talk to Iran and Syria, has made the situation worse rather than better. The blockade of Palestinian territory and the blocking of financial transfers have led to a humanitarian crisis, which is likely to breed further despair-ridden terrorism, rather than to create the conditions for constructive dialogue. We may hope that last week's tentative ceasefire between Israel and Palestine will hold, but we should recognise that it will not hold without active external pressure on both sides.

It is unlikely that the Bush Administration, in their last two discredited years in office, will reverse their mistaken decision six years ago to abandon the Middle East peace process, and to identify American interests instead with those of the Israeli Government of the day. Republican calculations of how support for Israel plays in domestic American politics, particularly in the Christian fundamentalist south, are unlikely to change. American support for the project of a greater Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, rests on questionable theology and on disastrous political reasoning. I note that many within Israel question whether their national interests have been hijacked by American ideologues who do not have Israel's long-term security at heart—promoting an expansion of West Bank settlements and an implicit approval of Palestinian expulsion that can only deepen Arab hostility. So we have to look elsewhere to reverse the slide towards another intifada and to revive the peace process: to the United Nations, to the European Union—for many years the largest provider of aids to sustain the Palestinian Authority—and to the Arab League.

It was characteristic of the loss of British influence that the latest European initiative on the Middle East bypassed Britain. Spain, Italy and France, the three Governments who launched it, provide the three largest contingents to the expanded UN force in Lebanon—and they provided them, we should remember, in response to active pressure from Washington. A previous Spanish Government sponsored the Madrid conference of 1991, out of which grew the Oslo peace process; so these are major and legitimate players within the Middle East. I hope that, in closing, the Minister will assure us that the British are now giving this initiative their full support. He failed to mention it in his opening speech.

The Saudi, Jordanian and Egyptian Governments have also taken the lead in reviving the Arab peace initiative of 2002, which offers Israel the security of peace with its neighbours within a two-state framework. We should welcome the active engagement of these states, and of the Arab League. We need a broad approach, to which as many states as possible are committed. Unilateral actions and bilateral negotiations have run into the sand.

We on these Benches are committed to a secure and prosperous Israel, at peace with its neighbours. Our commitment to Israel rests on our expectation that Israel is a democratic state that respects the highest standards of human rights. Peace for Israel has to rest on a two-state solution that is acceptable to Palestinians. The alternative is endless conflict. I agree with the correspondent in Haaretz who said two weeks ago that the long-term occupation and the settlement strategy risk corrupting Israeli values and society. The seizure of Palestinian land, the demolition of Palestinian houses and the destruction of farmland are not in accord with the values of a Jewish culture that has contributed so much to the development of our civilisation. It is in Israel's vital interests to find a way out of the occupation through a return to multilateral negotiations, which we, and other states, should help.

It is also vital that we preserve democratic values by permitting legitimate criticism by outsiders of the policies of the Israeli Government. The closing down of debate on Middle East policy within the United States through campaigns which attacked centres of Middle Eastern studies in American universities and accused critics of the Israeli Government of anti-Semitism has damaged Israel's enlightened interests. Washington no longer serves as a critical friend offering constructive advice. I was shaken, in a meeting with Shimon Peres in New York four years ago, to hear one speaker refer to,

"the structural anti-Semitism that dominates the British media", not to be contradicted by anyone else there, apart from me.

Some neo-conservatives have gone further, suggesting that Europe as a whole is fundamentally anti-Semitic and should therefore be excluded from any voice in the politics of the Middle East peace process. Anti-Semitism is a hateful sentiment which ran under European and American culture until the horror of the Holocaust demonstrated what it might lead to. Criticism of Israeli policy and actions in the Occupied Territories is of a different order. We should all be careful to maintain the distinction between one and the other and we should all be careful in our choice of language in a field where emotions run high and loosely used phrases can carry dark historical echoes.

Multilateral diplomacy, backed by financial assistance and the provision, where needed, of peacekeeping forces under UN authority is the only way forward in recreating stability across the Middle East. We on these Benches believe that Britain can best contribute by working as closely as possible now with its European partners to engage the Governments of the region. I welcome the emphasis on that in the Minister's opening speech.

We regret that the dual military commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan will make it impossible, for the foreseeable future, for British Armed Forces to contribute to such peacekeeping operations. For that, we will have to depend on our European partners and other UN states. For both Iraq and Afghanistan, we should now move away from an Anglo-American approach, demanding that others fall in behind us; we need to recognise that such an approach has left us dangerously overexposed as a country and the region dangerously unstable.