Why I count myself a member of the Peace Party

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The Independent Online
THIS COLUMN is, I like to think, more about analysis than prescription. Even so, the reader is entitled to know more or less where the author stands. I have never been a fully paid-up member of the Peace Party led by the right honourable member for Chesterfield, Mr Tony Benn. I supported the recapture of the Falklands in 1982 because Argentina had invaded a territory which was the dependency of another state. But I could not accept Margaret Thatcher's view that, as the invasion had been carried out by a dictatorship rather than a democracy, it was somehow more reprehensible. Nor could I agree with her that the islanders could impose their own terms on the British government.

Likewise I supported the Gulf war in 1990-91 for exactly the same reason. One sovereign state had invaded another and had to be repulsed, not so much in accordance with any new world order of the 1980s as with the order which was a consequence of the First World War and was embodied in the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928.

It is true that the great powers - since 1945, the USSR and the USA and, since 1989, the latter alone - have been distinctly selective in their application both of pre-war agreements about aggression and of the UN Charter. Indonesia has been allowed to get away with, literally, murder in East Timor. It is doubtful whether Mr George Bush would have been quite so enthusiastic about taking action against Iraq if Kuwait had not produced oil. No matter. Mr Saddam Hussein had still committed an unprovoked act of aggression.

In the course of the conflict and immediately afterwards Mr Bush and the allies behaved entirely correctly (except, perhaps, to their own troops). They repelled Mr Saddam and went home again, though a subsequent coup against him was attempted with typical incompetence by the CIA.

There were various Mr Worldly Wisemen who asserted then that the "real" war aim of the allies was to progress to Baghdad, where they would depose (if necessary, murder) Mr Saddam and replace him with a regime which was more acceptable to the West. How this was to be accomplished was at no stage made clear, any more than it is today. This supposed "real" war aim was contrasted with the "stated" aim of merely repelling the aggression. This stated aim, the Mr Wisemen claimed at the time, was phrased to carry along with it liberal opinion - herbivorous persons who believed in the control of aggression and the UN Charter.

Then there was a great surprise. Mr Bush (whose junior partner in the enterprise was first Lady Thatcher and then Mr John Major) did exactly as he had said he would. At the time there were those who thought he had made a mistake, that he "should have gone on to finish the job". It did not strike them, nor does it strike their successors today - certainly Mr Bill Clinton and Mr William Hague and probably the imprecise Mr Tony Blair - that you cannot go around threatening to assassinate the head of a sovereign state such as Iraq merely because he is personally disagreeable, runs a repressive regime, or even presents a threat to the peace and stability of his part of the world (or, indeed, the world generally, as Mr Saddam does not).

At all events, when Mr Saddam remained in power after 1991, the United States had a fit of pique, in which we vicariously joined. The consequences were the sanctions, which were unjustifiable except as the crudest of punishments, and the weapons inspections, which had perhaps greater justification, though they would have had more force still had former Australian diplomats such as Mr Richard Butler been poking into the defence arrangements of, among others, Israel, India and Pakistan.

What is clear, however, is that, as Mr Benn correctly pointed out in the House on Thursday, the breach of a few UN resolutions does not justify the use of overwhelming air power. If it did, Tel Aviv would long ago have been reduced to rubble. The bombing of Iraq is apparently to be stopped (or perhaps suspended) for Ramadan. If Mr Blair and Mr Clinton think that with this characteristically canting gesture they will make the Mohammedans less angry, they clearly have not studied, still less absorbed, the teachings of the prophet.

There can be no pretence that this action is being taken in self-defence. In the absence of this justification, the only warrant for the bombing would be a resolution of the Security Council, of which three members, France, Russia and China, are opposed to the action. Mr Benn was asked by a young Labour member, Mr Christopher Leslie, what he would do. He was halted by this intervention, and replied rather lamely that he would lift the sanctions.

There are two better answers which are both correct. One is that there are circumstances in this life when it is better to do nothing - that what can't be cured must be endured. If this quietist approach is rejected, the other answer is that, if UN resolutions in respect of Iraq are to be implemented, it should be only through force that is proportionate to the end in view.

No one could reasonably expect Mr Butler and his colleagues to put their lives at greater risk than they have been at already. But if Mr Clinton and Mr Blair are serious about enforcing the resolutions, they can put some troops in if they first obtain the authorisation of the UN. I suspect they are not at all serious about the inspections as such. In the days of the Cold War the iron curtain countries had a word which, when they used it in diplomatic negotiations, they regarded as the supreme insult to the other side: "pretext", as in "that is a pretext for" whatever it happened to be.

Similarly the inspections are a pretext for the air attacks, which have no clear aim other than, by some mysterious process, to remove Mr Saddam and his regime and to replace it with another. All the historical evidence is that attacks from the air solidify civilian morale and entrench those already in power - even if some evidence is now emerging that the inhabitants of London in the Blitz were not quite the cheerful Cockney sparrows depicted in wartime propaganda films.

Though we put in troops on the ground in the Falklands and the Gulf, as the USA did in the Gulf too, both countries are none too keen to do the same in Iraq today, for obvious reasons. Mr Clinton and Mr Blair are reluctant to have their young men killed in any very public manner and for no very good cause. For these reasons alone, if for no others, they would not contemplate providing proper military protection for the inspection teams.

The glamorous alternative is to do what the USA did so unsuccessfully in Vietnam (though there were, as we know, ground troops there as well). This was to try to bomb the country to the negotiating table. Here the aims are not so clear. What negotiations? Where is the table? We do not even know whether the United Kingdom is at war. At the beginning of the Suez conflict Sydney Silverman asked Anthony Eden whether we were at war with Egypt, and he could not answer. Last week the lobby journalists asked Mr Blair whether we were at war with Iraq, and he could not answer either. It would be pleasant to know. In the meantime I remain a member of the Peace Party led by the right honourable member for Chesterfield.

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