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17 Oct 2002 : Column 555—continued

5.58 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): The debate bears the all-encompassing title of XDefence in the world". It is therefore unsurprising that contributions have been made on a variety of subjects, not least on the US missile defence programme. I welcome the Secretary of State's statement that that vital subject will receive full consideration on the Floor of the House.

Compared with 15 or 20 years ago, the world is a more dangerous place. I have always been sceptical about the concept of a peace dividend. The day the cold war ended and the iron curtain was raised, the world became a less predictable and more dangerous place.

Only today, we have had reports of nuclear proliferation reaching North Korea. I wonder how many other countries are more advanced than we think in obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

We are paying the price for letting our guard down in the aftermath of the cold war and allowing rogue states to poach technicians and technical know-how. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that every necessary resource is being made available to monitor the whereabouts of those scientists and those with technical know-how to stop the spread going any further.

The entrenched positions of the two superpowers during the cold war years had a certain in-built safety. Both sides knew that ultimately the price of conflict would be too high. That created a safety valve, as evidenced by the Cuban missile crisis when the world stood at the brink of a precipice. That has now been replaced by asymmetric threats and a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, any threat will be non-discriminatory and non-proportional. There is no longer any division between conventional or legitimate targets and innocents as we understand them, the recent tragic events in Bali being just such an example. We must therefore learn to adapt our military capabilities and our ability to respond quickly and effectively to match the changed nature of these threats.

I wonder whether recent events have changed the support of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for a European Union rapid reaction force. There is a real probability that the Prime Minister, by identifying himself so closely with America, has inflicted untold damage on his relations with both the French and the Germans. What if the United States, backed by the United Kingdom, goes it alone in Iraq, with or without the requisite UN Security Council resolution? Where would that leave dreams of a rapid reaction force?

We know that the United States is pressing NATO to constitute a special unit to combat terrorism, with 21,000 soldiers to be ready at short notice. We know also that the United States expects to participate in such a venture, but that Europe is to provide most of the soldiers. It is said that the force would be operational by October 2006. Perhaps most intriguing of all is that NATO would take decisions about when and where the force would be used.

The report that I read went on to suggest that Donald Rumsfeld was using talk of a rapid response force to test the commitment and readiness of Europeans and our

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desire to spend our own money. As America increased its defence budget by $48 billion in the aftermath of 11 September—one-and-a-half times the French defence budget and twice the German budget—the Americans may be guilty of optimism. I would welcome the Secretary of State's comments.

Our immediate domestic concerns must be for those soldiers, sailors and airmen who may be about to be committed once again to a theatre of war. Their equipment must be of the highest order, and I was reassured by the Secretary of State's comments on the SA80 A2 rifle. Their families must be properly looked after. Any assessment of overstretch must take into account the long periods of enforced separation for those families. We must not denude one area of commitment to shore up another. I have Northern Ireland in mind, where the suspension of Stormont may mean that the police force needs even more, not less, support from the Army.

We need a guarantee that our troops will be properly prepared to meet any chemical or biological attack. Can the Minister give us an assurance that the Government are 100 per cent. happy this time about the inoculations that our troops will have to have? Finally, there should be a guarantee that recruits who are attracted to join the forces by the possibility of conflict will be subject to the same rigorous training and standards as normal entrants and that the process will not be accelerated to fill gaps that have been created by undermanning. Nothing must stand in the way of our armed forces and their training, their discipline, their equipment and, ultimately, their professionalism, on which over the coming months we may well come to rely upon once again.

6.4 pm

Jim Knight (South Dorset): Any debate on this subject must address the twin threats of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The attacks of 11 September, and now in Bali, have shown the deadly and ruthless nature of the threat that we must defend against. Despite the success of the action in Afghanistan in removing al-Qaeda's command, control and training, it is clear that dangerous cells remain scattered throughout the globe. Action against those cells requires international co-operation not just on military action, but on finance, intelligence and so on, and that must happen. There is an international will to have an international response to terrorism, but there is not the same will to act against rogue states with weapons of mass destruction, in particular Iraq, which will form the main part of my contribution.

It is clear from constituents who have contacted me that there is still considerable concern about such action. The public need to be convinced about the threat. Intelligence information has convinced me that Iraq is capable of delivering warheads equipped with weapons of mass destruction to targets in the middle east. Coupled with Saddam's past record on Iran and his treatment of his people, that capability constitutes a threat to the middle east, including our NATO allies.

The threat must be taken seriously because if Saddam is left as he is, the threat will grow, and with it his power over his neighbours, over whom he can exercise the power of a bully and the power of fear. I would not rule

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out military action as a means of dealing with the threat, but to justify taking such action now requires a belief that a failure to do so carries risks so great that they outweigh the dangers inherent in such action. It would be dangerous in the extreme to take military action without at least the tacit support and agreement of a significant majority of nations in the region. Although the vast majority of middle eastern states clearly do not support Saddam, it appears that the prospect of military action attracts even less backing. It is similarly vital that we guard against inflaming radical Islamic elements. We must minimise the likelihood of sparking terrorist outrages akin to those in Bali at the weekend.

The public need the reassurance that the UN is sufficiently convinced by the case made by the Bush Administration and, to some extent, our Government. They do not trust the United States and bilateral action with it would isolate us in the world in the way that we want Iraq to be isolated. I would be equally wary of military action that promised to achieve a regime change. It would be great to see the back of Saddam and it may be necessary to end his regime, but that must not be the end in itself. Any military action must focus on the outcome of dismantling Iraq's destructive capabilities, not on regime change for its own sake. Furthermore, any military approach needs to be achievable while minimising the loss of civilian life. Previous experience has shown us that Saddam positions many of his key installations close to heavily populated areas, and military strategy must take that into account.

In simple terms, I could support action if it is backed by the UN, but it should not be seen as giving in to the ambitions of the United States. This country places little trust in the Bush Administration. The same is true of Europe and across the world. A year ago, they had the world's sympathy. Sadly, it appears that they have lost it. Prior to 11 September, the US was retreating from the world and withdrawing from international commitments such as Kyoto. After the attacks, it showed great restraint and responded with broad international support in Afghanistan. However, in the past six months we have had the US steel tariffs, the Farm Acts, the blocking of progress in Johannesburg and the refusal to sign countless international treaties. The Administration's promises to rebuild a civil society in Afghanistan are yet to materialise. Meanwhile, President Bush pursues his axis of evil and, as a result, countries such as Iran worry that they may be next. There is also the lack of US sanction against the Israeli Government, which has been well discussed in the House. For those reasons, it has been a struggle for many to understand why our Government appear to remain so close to the Bush Administration.

We are beginning to see beyond that public face, however. We are a constraining influence in Washington. Our voice has more than once tilted the balance of arguments between hawks and doves in the White House. There have been several instances in which our Government's quiet influence on US policy has resulted in a more measured approach to conflicts around the world. If a shoulder-to-shoulder public stance allows a small nation to wield a moderating influence in private over a dangerous belligerent

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superpower, it is a price worth paying. There is also a clear justification in maintaining pressure on Saddam. He needs to understand that there is no alternative but to co-operate with the UN. The prospect of military action must focus his mind. It may be right to act now with force, but only with the international authority of the UN, not with the imperial authority of the US.

We must tackle our threats robustly but in an environment of a globalised threat. The response must be global, based on international co-operation with other Europeans, NATO allies and former cold war enemies, so that we have a legal, principled and justifiable response to the rogue elements that constitute the threat.

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