The threat of military action against Iraq raises profound moral questions,
for people of any religious conviction or none. The government's failure to set
out a convincing case for military action has created a vacuum in which public
opinion, left to its own devices, has already concluded that such action would
be both illegal and immoral. Churches are rightly at the forefront of an emerging
coalition, comprising key elements of civil society such as trade unions, NGOs
and parliamentarians, which is urging caution and restraint. Significantly, a
number of eminent and highly experienced military leaders have also expressed
their deep reservations about the wisdom, as well as the morality, of attacking
Unless the government takes steps to present a coherent case for military action,
it will find it increasingly hard to rally public opinion in the UK, let alone
in those countries in the Middle East whose support would be vital to the success
of any such operation. The failure to present such a case would appear to substantiate
King Abdullah's comments that the prime minister has similar concerns about how
this could all unravel. So what, then, are these concerns and how should the government
Earlier this year the government promised to publish a dossier of evidence
incriminating Iraq. No such dossier has been released and no publication date
has been given. Instead the government has drawn attention to the chemical and
biological material unaccounted for by UNSCOM inspectors in 1998. Why is such
prominence being given to information which is now four years old?
Until more up-to-date information is published, it will be difficult to fathom
both the speed and depth by which Iraq has restructured its weapons of mass destruction
program. This would allow more accurate conclusions to be drawn as to the threat
posed by Iraq. But even if Saddam Hussein does have weapons of mass destruction
he is not alone in that, so there needs to be strong and compelling evidence that
he is prepared to or about to use them before we are at the point of making any
kind of intervention.
The government's failure to publish such documentation will provide an obstacle
to securing the widest possible support both in and outside parliament. This is
especially important for those Muslim communities here in the UK, who would perceive
a UK attack on Iraq as evidence of an in-built hostility to the Islamic world.
There can be no question that British involvement in military action against Iraq
would multiply the problems faced by Muslim communities here, and could severely
destabilize inter-faith relations. For all the official insistence that the war
on terrorism, and in particular the war in Afghanistan, is not an attack on Islam,
considerable numbers of Muslims still see it precisely as that.
Without the incriminating dossier, the public will find it hard to accept the
argument that the government's preferred policy of containment hasn't worked.
In the past the government has consistently argued that sanctions have kept a
brutal dictator contained for 10 years and have denied him access to equipment
necessary to rebuild his weapons arsenal. To now argue that the policy of containment
has not worked is an admission that the last 11 years of sanctions amount to an
impressive policy failure. The government needs to explain this u-turn, especially
since any military action is fraught with uncertainty and when any post-conflict
settlement remains clouded in ambiguity.
The perception exists that the government's thinking on Iraq has been unduly
influenced by considerations across the Atlantic. Yet in reality the US and UK
positions are contradictory rather than complementary. The UK has always insisted
that its objective is to get the UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq, and if
necessary to force Saddam Hussein to comply with relevant UN security council
resolutions. Contrast this nuanced position with the stated US objective of regime
change, an objective which is, by definition, ill-disposed to any conciliatory
moves by Baghdad. While it remains important to show solidarity with the US post-September
11, this solidarity should not be at the expense of sacrificing our own policy
objectives in favor of saving the US the embarrassment of unilateral action.
While Saddam Hussein is a brutal and nasty dictator and one the world could
well do without, talk of regime change places unnecessary obstacles in the path
of finding a diplomatic solution to the current crisis. Would it really be such
a waste of time to invite the Iraqi foreign minister, Naji Sabri, to visit London
and Washington? Have we really passed the point of no return for the kind of diplomatic
initiative that might possibly lead to a peaceful compromise? After all, what
incentive exists for the Iraqi government to cooperate with the UN when the US
has repeatedly stated that allowing weapons inspectors back into the country will
be insufficient to stave off military action? Instead, the talk of regime change
merely serves to weaken the existing consensus in favor of containment.
Any war of this kind needs proper justification, and it needs to be conducted
within the framework of international law. However, competing US and UK policy
objectives only serve to undermine public confidence as to the legality of any
military action. The government has given assurances that any military action
the UK undertakes will be carried out in accordance with international law.
In reality, it seems more than likely the government will justify an attack
by arguing that Iraq is in contravention of the 1991 ceasefire resolution. While
this might provide the basis for such force as is necessary to restore the ceasefire
agreement, it would be not be sufficient to justify the US policy ambition of
regime change. The government must guarantee that if it were to participate in
any US-led military enterprise, explicit as well as implicit UN security council
authorization would be sought.
The threat of a prolonged war in the Middle East, possibly entailing the use
of chemical and biological warfare, with the risk of substantial civilian and
military casualties, must be avoided at all costs. The collateral damage is likely
to be huge. Some 90% of the victims would be civilians and half of those would
be children. To justify that kind of slaughter the evidence for Saddam's capacity
to deploy weapons of mass destruction against his neighbors, to say nothing of
the UK and the US, would need to be compelling. Until the government shows greater
clarity of thought and purpose as to why a military solution is necessary and
feasible, it would be wiser to persist with the tried and tested policy of containment.
Talk of containment could imply a continuation of the existing sanctions policy,
but that simply will not do. UN figures reveal that over half a million children
have probably died as a direct result of the last decade of sanctions, many more
than are likely to die in open warfare. Smart sanctions, the targeting of fissionable
materials, toxic chemicals and malign biological agents, have never really been
seriously tried by the international community. Surely their time is now.
The Right Rev Colin Bennetts is bishop of Coventry
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002