….sofa government was foolish, but intentional lying to parliament was unforgiveable

Speaking in HoLHouse of Lords Debate on Iraq – 26 Feb 2003

By late 2002 it had become clear to me, and this was confirmed from my own sources in the security world, that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had decided, with US President George W Bush, to invade Iraq.  It was also clear to me that the consequences would be catastrophic.

When I spoke in the debate on 26 February 2003, I laid out my concerns and predictions of the consequences, and my belief that the Prime Minister had already made the decision to go to war.

The Minister, Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, responding to my comments dismissed any suggestion that there was a rush to war and specifically denied to me that a decision had been taken –

“Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that Her Majesty’s Government have taken no decision on military action. I assure my noble friend Lady Turner and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that there has been no decision for war. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made that clear again yesterday. He said: “we will work every last minute that we can to reunite the international community and to disarm Iraq through the United Nations”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/2/03; col. 126.]

The Chilcott Report, published today, makes it clear that during December 2002 President Bush decided that inspections would not achieve the desired result and the US would take military action in early 2003.  By the end of January 2003 (a month before that House of Lords debate), Mr Blair had accepted the US timetable for military action by mid-March – only a few weeks away.

Read the speech I made in February 2003 and the response by Lady Symons of Vernham Dean (a very senior Government Minister at the time) and you will see that it demonstrates beyond peradventure, that the consequences in Iraq were not unforeseen, but were predicted, and that PM Blair and his sofa government were not only casual and dismissive in their consideration of the issues, but blatantly dishonest in their responses to parliamentarians who were trying to hold them to account.

These were not honest ‘mistakes’ made in ‘good faith’, as Tony Blair characterises them.  They were part of a casually dishonest approach to government.

House of Lords, Hansard, 26 Feb 2003 : Column 310

Lord Alderdice: “My Lords, at the end of his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, gave three important elements of good morale among troops. However, there was one important element that he did not mention: a sense of conviction in soldiers’ hearts that what they are doing is right. Tonight’s debate is a struggle among ourselves to become convinced of what is right. That is a proper and appropriate use of Parliament.

The debate was launched by the Minister with her customary verve and passion. She gave a thoughtful and rational presentation of her views. That being the case and the Minister being no mean speaker, I ask myself why I remain unconvinced. So, I work my way through what I understand to be her argument.

The first argument is that the option for Saddam is that either he disarms completely in the context of the weapons inspections or it will be done forcibly. I remain unconvinced. In the United Kingdom, we had a situation for 30 years in which the British Government, in co-operation with the Irish Government, were in full control of Northern Ireland and the Irish Government in full control of the Republic of Ireland. They sought to achieve disarmament but were not able to do so—in a small place. The conclusion was reached that, without co-operation, it was impossible to get decommissioning. Therefore, any suggestion that Iraq will be identifiably, verifiably and completely rid of weapons of mass destruction because the monitors are there is, without regime change, an illusion. As long as the regime is there, it will always be possible to hide things inside people’s heads, as well as in buildings and under the ground.

The Minister is not a foolish person; nor is the Prime Minister. They will have seen that argument, and one is left with the uneasy feeling that the purpose of the weapons inspections was to try to unearth something of the smoking gun, which would demonstrate the justification for war. In other words, the decision for war had already been taken, and the weapons inspectors were there to provide the evidence to justify going to war. There is no possibility of proving that there are no weapons of mass destruction. It is a bit like the case of the woman in the medieval witches’ ducking-stool. If she goes under and stays under, the river has accepted her; if she is rejected by the river and even the river did not want her, it is justifiable to burn her at the stake as a witch. I find myself unconvinced by that argument. It suggests that a decision was made—perhaps a justifiable decision—that regime change was needed after all this time.

The pattern of the past few years has been outlined. We can go back to the war. After the war, we had the weapons inspectors from 1991 until 1998. They contained the situation, but Saddam was still there. There were United Nations resolutions, and deadlines were set down for Saddam—I was going to say that he had the gun put to his head, but that would have been an unfortunate turn of phrase. Requirements were made of him, and he ignored them. Finally, we are left with no alternative, after that clear and conscientiously followed policy line, but to take action.

I have no doubt that that is the story of the past 10 or 12 years that the Bush Administration would like to believe is true. They want to believe that there was a seamless move from the policy of the first Bush Administration to that of the second Bush Administration. They regard the Clinton years as a little aberration that would be better put to the side. I did not think that that was how this Government thought of the Clinton years. President Clinton had a different approach to policy; he had a different strategy. It is not just I who say that: President Bush is clear about it. If he is asked whether he is following the policies of his predecessor, he will say, “Of course, I’m not. On almost every issue of foreign policy, I am taking a different line. They were wasted, foolish years of international social work”.

What was that policy? It was that, if there is a conflict, we should identify the partisans. Then, we try to identify those who influence the partisans and create a peace process, through which—over years of political pressure, economic development and confidence-building measures—we bring to an end the conflict and the issues around it. That is what happened in South Africa. It is what we have been trying to do in Northern Ireland. That is what President Clinton tried to do in the Middle East, as I remember it. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford said, in quoting a colleague, President Clinton saw that the road to Iraq ran through Jerusalem. In other words, the central issue in the Middle East is Israel and Palestine. Until that issue is addressed, nothing else can be resolved.

But someone will say, “Yes, but you are forgetting 9/11, when everything changed”. Some things did change. Many people in the Middle East who previously had had no sympathy with America, began to have sympathy with America. Many countries that would not naturally have felt an affection for the American people and what they were going through, came on-side. There was an incipient alliance within the Arab countries for dealing with conflict in that area.

I always had the sense that President Clinton wanted people to like him and that he did not want to lose them. If either he or a Clinton-type Democrat President had been around and that kind of alliance had been presented on a plate after 9/11, I do not believe that a handful of years later those countries would all have left.

Unlike the first Gulf War, as I feel it will be called—not the “Gulf War” but the “First Gulf War”—we are moving into this without allies in the Arab world. It is a very different situation. That is not because the Arab world wants Saddam Hussein—it wants rid of him—but we have found ways of getting it on the wrong side.

But it is not only that. For the sake of argument, let us assume that the policy currently being pursued by Her Majesty’s Government and the United States Administration is followed through; that we have a fair wind and that Saddam Hussein is toppled within a couple of weeks. What will we be left with? We will be left in Iraq with the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites rapidly at each others’ throats. Noble Lords who believe that a liberating army is always welcome after the first week have short memories. Very often the army gets tea and biscuits for the first week, but the one way that it unites everyone is against itself.

I do not believe a successful war will resolve immediately the problem of Iraq. Will it resolve the problem in the Middle East generally? Indeed not; it will create the possibility of even greater chaos. Major instabilities which already exist in the Middle East will not be resolved. Will the United Nations be strengthened? Will it become an instrument that we can turn to in order to address these issues? It will have been effectively set to the side.

Another major cost is the profound damage that has been done to North Atlantic institutions and relationships which have served us well. I do not say that out of anti-Americanism; I say it for precisely the opposite reason. I have a great fear that our relationship will be set to the side. That is part of the danger that we are in.

When you are cycling up a one-way street and you begin to have doubts about what is further along the street, you are very unwise to keep pedalling. The wise thing to do is to at least stop, contain the situation and review it. You may not go back down the street—after all, it is a one-way street—but you may try to find other ways of reaching the destination at which you wish to arrive, rather than forcing yourself to go to the destination at which you are no longer sure you wish to arrive.

For me, that is the rationale for giving the weapons inspectors more time. That is not because they will, over a period of time, rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction without regime change—I do not believe that and I do not believe that the Government believe that—nor that that in itself will get rid of Saddam Hussein, but it may give us time to think through our strategy.

This is not the only strategy for getting rid of Saddam Hussein and for addressing the issues in the Middle East. For eight years Her Majesty’s Government seemed to believe that the strategy adopted by President Clinton was perfectly reasonable and ought to be given more time. I still hold to that old-fashioned view, perhaps because I have to study the outcomes of that Clinton approach in my own part of the United Kingdom. If there is a doubt, it might be wise to give ourselves and our world a little more time.”

1 comment on “….sofa government was foolish, but intentional lying to parliament was unforgiveable

  1. John, I’ve just read this and it is AMAZING! Thank you so much for your insight … which was not followed at all. Do you remember me telling you that all the church bells in our department in the Saone et Loire rang at 5:40 pm one day before the USA invaded? M Derain was embarrassed to tell us (the Americans) that everyone in our region was against going to war!!?? Bless M Derain as well as you – sure wish more leaders had listened!

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