Below is the text of the speech made by Pat McFadden, the Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East, in the House of Commons on 14 July 2016.
I am happy to be a substitute for my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), Mr Speaker.
The decision to go to war in Iraq was, certainly in foreign policy terms, the most controversial decision of the Blair premiership and, indeed, of the entire Labour period in government. One hundred and seventy nine British troops died, as did more than 4,000 American troops, and many thousands of Iraqi civilians in the chaos and destruction afterwards. Sir John’s inquiry was asked to look at how the decision was taken and what lessons can be learned.
First, there is the crucial question of whether the war was based on a lie. On this, the report concludes:
“there is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No 10 improperly influenced the text.”
Prior to the report’s publication, there had been years of accusations about fabricating intelligence. In the wake of its publication a different question has been raised, which is why the intelligence was not challenged more.
The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) quoted from some Joint Intelligence Committee reports. I do not need to repeat those particular quotes, but in 2002 the reports say that the intelligence was “sporadic and patchy”. They also say:
“it is clear that Iraq continues to pursue a policy of acquiring WMD and their delivery means”,
“Iraq has an offensive chemical warfare programme”
“Iraq has a chemical and biological weapons capability and Saddam is prepared to use it”.
This view turned out to be wrong, but it was genuinely felt and reported to the Government time after time. It was shared by many intelligence services around the world, including in countries fiercely opposed to the war. Sir John makes important recommendations about how intelligence is to be assessed and challenged in the future, but they are not the same as accusations of fabrication, lying or using intelligence deliberately to mislead.
Sir John concludes that the war was “not a last resort”, that the inspection process should have been given more time, and that the decision to use military action “undermined the authority” of the UN Security Council. This finding raises a huge and fundamental question, particularly in view of the fact that Saddam Hussein had been in breach of a whole series of UN Security Council resolutions over a period of 12 years, and that he had in the past used chemical weapons against his own people. One therefore has to ask who was really undermining the UN. Was it the country in breach, or the countries trying to enforce the UN’s will?
What does this finding mean for the responsibility to protect? My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) raised that issue yesterday. Is one of the lessons that we should never engage in military action, no matter how multiple the breaches of previous UN Security Council resolutions, unless there is full support from the Security Council itself? If that is our conclusion, what does that mean for the authority of the UN? This was not the view that we took in Kosovo. That action, although it was opposed by some, is generally felt to have produced a positive outcome for the people and to have prevented a disaster in the Balkans.
Thirdly, I turn to the aftermath, and the chaos and destruction that ensued.
Mr Alistair Carmichael
The question for the House is whether there is the weight of evidence to justify action, not if we should never act without express authority from the UN Security Council, which would be just one piece of evidence that the House should take into consideration. In the case of Kosovo, which is a good example, there were other reasons for acting as we did. I supported that action then and continue to support it now.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. My point is that the finding about undermining the authority of the UN raises huge questions. It is one of the most controversial findings in the report.
Colin Powell famously remarked:
“If you break it, you own it”.
It is undoubtedly the responsibility of countries that remove a brutal dictator to put in place security measures afterwards. On this point, Sir John’s report is understandably critical of the UK and the US. With intervention comes responsibility. Security is a key part of that responsibility, but we should be clear about two other points: first, the killing of innocent civilians in Iraq was carried out not by UK or US armed forces, but by terrorists and militias that blew up the UN headquarters, attacked mosques, destroyed already fragile infrastructure and bombed marketplaces; and, secondly, that sectarian violence and killings in Iraq did not begin in 2003. Prior to that, it was carried out by the Saddam regime itself: the Anfal campaign; the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the north; and the brutal suppression of the Shi’a uprising after the first Gulf war in 1991. It was a reign of terror. Decades on, mass graves are still being discovered. I pay tribute to the courage and determination of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who was campaigning for the victims of Saddam’s brutal regime long before the Iraq war in 2003.
Fourthly, what is the lesson for our own security? I believe that people supported the Iraq war for different reasons, and many opposed it for different reasons. They should not all be put in the one bracket. Not everyone has drawn a direct line between this intervention and all the security problems we face, but some have. Foreign interventions will anger jihadists, and may also be used as a recruiting sergeant for jihadists, but it would be a fundamental mistake to believe that the mass murder of innocent people is only a response to what we do, and that if we stopped doing it, they would leave us alone. We should remember that Islamist terrorism existed long before the Iraq war. The USS Cole was bombed in 2000. The World Trade Centre was first bombed in 1993 and then destroyed in 2001, with the loss of 3,000 innocent lives. In Bali in 2002, we saw the murder of hundreds of innocent tourists, and there have been many more attacks around the world since, including last year in Paris. That attack took place in the country in Europe that was the most opposed to the Iraq war.
Let me repeat something I have said here before. Understanding Islamist terrorism simply as a reaction to what we do infantilises terrorists, fails to confer responsibility on them for what they do, and fails to stand up for the pluralism, equality, diversity and religious freedom that we hold dear. Whatever lesson we learn from past interventions, it should not be to franchise out our foreign policy decisions for the approval or veto of the terrorists who oppose our way of life.
Finally, there is the lesson on intervention itself. Sir John makes a number of recommendations on this point—about how intelligence should be treated, ministerial oversight, the challenge of arguments and so forth. The recommendations look eminently sensible, and I am sure that any future Government will take them on board. The truth is, however, that this is not just a matter of process.
My right hon. Friend made a strong critique of one of Sir John’s findings about the undermining of the United Nations. Another finding that I consider problematic is the “last resort” suggestion, which was also criticised by the Chair of the Defence Committee. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at that time, it was clear that time was running out? Saddam had been given 90 days when the resolution specified 30 days, so saying that other avenues could somehow be explored was not realistic at the time.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. At some point, there is always the issue of deciding. Every debate about intervention since 2003 has taken place in the shadow of this decision. Iraq has already increased the threshold for military action and the Chilcot report will raise it further. There is an inescapable question, however. To put it bluntly, we can have all the committees and processes that we want, but we still have to decide. The decision can go wrong, and everything that will happen in the aftermath cannot be predicted.
Much has been said about the size of the report, with its 2.5 million words. If we stack the volumes on top of one another, the paper would stand about 2 feet high. The very sight of the report will be a warning to future Prime Ministers. Since 2003, Prime Ministers and Presidents have been very conscious about learning from Iraq, and this report will make them even more conscious in the future. The biggest question of all is this: in reflecting on what went wrong after the invasion and the findings of the report, and adding in the reduced size of our armed forces in recent years, what if the conclusion was, “Never intervene again”? What message would that send out to the oppressed of the world, to dictators or to terrorist groups?
I was not an MP in 2003, so I never had to face the responsibility of voting for the war in Iraq. The most significant vote on foreign policy since I was elected was over Syria in 2013, and that vote was heavily coloured by our experience in Iraq. I have a slightly different interpretation from that of the right hon. Member for New Forest East. I voted against military action in 2013, even after Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people. Yet Syria, where we did not intervene beyond the limited airstrikes we voted for last year, has been a humanitarian disaster even worse than Iraq. Hundreds of thousands are dead, millions have been displaced, and we have seen the greatest movement of refugees since the end of the second world war. It is not a vote to intervene that has troubled me most in my 11 years here; it is that vote not to intervene, as the international community, with the exception of Russia—where have the demonstrations outside its embassy been?—stood back and decided that it was all too difficult. There is no Chilcot report on Syria. We can tell ourselves that because we did not break it, we did not buy it, but that makes absolutely no difference to the human cost.
So let us learn, but let us not sign a blank cheque for despots and terrorist groups around the world, or delude ourselves that the security issues that we face stem only from our foreign policy decisions, rather than from an ideology that encourages the killing of innocent people in countries around the world. Yes, intervening has consequences—2.5 million words detailing those consequences are before us—but so does standing back, and leadership is about deciding the difference.