Paul Anderson talks to Labour's defence spokesman about Saddam Hussein, the future of Europe and the possibilities of a compromise on policy at Labour Party conference
King Hussein of Jordan may fear that the Gulf crisis is leading inexorably to a Middle East war, but Labour's defence spokesman, Martin O'Neill, will have none of it.
"The period when war seemed inevitable within a couple of days has passed," he says emphatically. "I don't think unilateral American action is likely. The American Congressional elections take place on November 6, and I don't think there's much possibility .of any change in the American position until after that. Then there are the more practical logistic concerns. Military deployment will probably not be completed until well into November. The Americans are committed to an economic blockade, and it will take some time to bite."
He seems equally sum that Saddam Hussein will not make the first move by attacking Saudi Arabia,
“though he might decide to divert attention from domestic difficulties by having an external adventure, as dictators often do". Instead of worrying about when war will break out, he says, "we ought to be preparing the British public and the British troops for several months of sitting it out. I hope that this will be sufficient for the economic sanctions to take effect."
So what would justify use of military force against Iraq? "It would depend on the circumstances in which fighting started. To speculate at this time is very dangerous. We've taken the view that the troops are there at the express request of the United Nations as a consequence of Saudi and Kuwaiti appeals. The safety of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would be the major condition, but there may be other factors."
But does the UN position justify the anti-Iraqi forces making the first military moves in any circumstances? "I don't think that that is envisaged by the present agreements at the UN, but circumstances may change. I'm not saying this because I want to offer an excuse, but it is a possibility."
I put it to Mr O'Neill that any war would result in civilian casualties almost too horrific to contemplate. On one hand, Iraq has a massive chemical armoury and has shown that it is not ashamed to use it. On the other, Iraqi troops are entrenched in the built-up areas of Kuwait city and cannot be easily dislodged. Does the American military take such considerations at alt seriously?
"I don't think that anyone is unaware of the horrendous consequences of warfare in the Gulf. The efforts that the American administration has made to secure support in the Security Council, and thus sacking of Air Force General Michael Dugan, indicate that it is not prepared to give the military the lead rote. There is still a strong commitment to sanctions as the means of securing the removal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait.”
Nevertheless, Mr O’Neill does not think that too much should be made of the likely casualties if war breaks out. "If Saddam's firepower becomes the issue, it could result in the legitimising of his taking of Kuwait," he says.
He is similarly emphatic about his backing for the Government's agreement to send ground troops to the Gulf — a decision about which he had at first seemed to have serious doubts. “The Americans took a rough and ready view of what was required at the beginning of the crisis. Since then, they’ve concluded that more forces were necessary. There are a number of countries that are unwilling or unable to reinforce the Gulf, but we’re in a position where we have the capability – you might argue because it’s surplus to requirements on the central front. And it isn’t just that Britain is putting the tanks in: undertakings have been given by the Egyptians and the Syrians to increase their presence. The deployment of British ground troops is significant but not massive, and I don’t think it’s upping the ante a great deal.”
Nevertheless, he is critical of Tory arguments that the Gulf crisis shows that Britain should be moving towards a greater “out of area” military role now that the cold war is over. “We discount any formal out-of-area role for Britain, although there has to be a capability to protect British interests if they're under threat.". He also dismisses arguments that NATO, the West European Union or the European Community should create multinational "global policeman" rapid deployment forces.
Which is not to say that he is' against the development of rapid' deployment capabilities in principle. By the mid-nineties, he 'says, NATO's much scaled-down deployment in Germany will almost certainly be far more mobile than its current forces, "but under the auspices of NATO such forces would not have a role outside Europe."
Another Conservative argument has been that the Gulf crisis effectively scuppers hopes for large cuts in military, expenditure. Once again, Mr O'Neill disagrees. "The peace dividend would, be limited in its earlier stages,, Obviously, the Gulf crisis will mean short-term over-runs in the defence budget which will have to be met out of contingency reserves.. But in the longer term I don’t see that this should impose a significant extra burden on the defence budget or impede the achievement of the kinds of savings in military expenditure that were envisaged before the Gulf blew up."
Nor does the Gulf crisis show that Britain needs to retain its nuclear weaponry to deter third world military adventurers. "The idea that you can deter a Saddam Hussein with nuclear weapons is perhaps the worst argument for nuclear weapons. You cannot deter a fanatic with weapons of any kind," As for
countering third world nuclear powers, "the nuclear capabilities that countries like Iraq may acquire will be extremely primitive. They won't have the delivery systems to pose a threat to the United Kingdom or north-west Europe. Anyway, the way of dealing with nuclear proliferation in the third world is through arms control negotiations.”
The Gulf crisis is not, of course, the only defence question of any importance, even if it has dominated the media for the past two months. The collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe has brought the cold war to an end after 40 years. The two Germanics become one next Wednesday, and massive reductions in conventional forces are imminent as a result of the Conventional Forces in Europe negotiations. A bloc-free, substantially demilitarised Europe, which seemed a distant dream only a year ago, is now within reach.
Yet NATO seems to be dragging its feet. In July, the NATO summit in London issued a declaration holding put the prospect of a transformation of NATO into a more political alliance committed to negotiating arms reductions.
But it restated the nuclear strategic, doctrines of "flexible response" and "forward defence". The declaration pointedly did not announce cancellation of NATO's plans to deploy a new nuclear tactical air-to-surface missile (TASM) to replace Cruise and Pershing missiles removed from Europe under the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty.
Mr O'Neill gave a cautious welcome to the declaration in July and still.stands by his judgment. There were things in the declaration that were good, but there was inconsistency between the agreement not to proceed with short-range ground launched nuclear forces and the retention of the ideas of 'flexible response* and forward defence'." He also, rebuffs criticism of Labour's position on TASM. "Deployment of TASM would be against the spirit of the INF treaty. The Dutch and the Belgians have continued to press this point, and the German coalition is not completely unified on the issue. The Americans are very sensitive to this. While they're proceeding with the deployment of TASM, no formal decisions have been taken about deployment. Labour is' opposed to TASM and we would fight within the alliance to have it stopped."
Mr O'Neill is optimistic that the talks in Vienna on conventional forces in Europe will result in early agreements on reductions. He is less sanguine about the possibilities of negotiating naval reductions in the North Atlantic. The situation with maritime disarmament is what I find most frustrating. We have got to get the Americans and the Soviets to reach an understanding on the North Atlantic. That is one of the major areas where a Labour government could make a contribution. We are the biggest European contributor to NATO’s maritime forces. That has to be a lever which we can pull. We would not subscribe to the view that we can do without some kind of seaborne capability but it could be that we could bring it further south."
What, though, of Labour's position on the broader questions surrounding the structure of a post-cold war European security system? Is the mutual dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw Pact still Labour's long-term goal? Mr O'Neill laughs. “The mutual dissolution of the blocs was one of those policies that people supported because they didn't think it would happen. And you can't have the mutual dissolution of the two blocs when one has already disintegrated. But the establishment of a new order is essential and frankly we never gave enough thought to that because it seemed so far off. We've got to secure the continuing engagement of the United States in Europe, but make the Americans recognise that this will be of a diminished significance. We have to use the institutions that are available to us, and for the foreseeable future that means working through NATO and the Warsaw Pact."
The defence issue that dominates this year's party conference agenda is not, however, the future of Europe, but the peace dividend. Last year, against the advice of the leadership, conference voted by a two-thirds majority for Composite 47, which committed Labour "to reduce defence spending initially to equal the average level of other West European countries". This year, out of 56 resolutions to conference on defence and security issues, 35 were reaffirmations of Composite 47.
Mr O'Neill believes that a compromise can be reached. "We had several reasons for opposing acceptance of Composite 47," he says. "First, the use of the word 'initially' gave the impression that the cuts might have to be carried out in the first year of a Labour government. Secondly, it wasn't clear what the level of cut was. Thirdly, the notion of cutting to the ‘average West European level' of defence spending is very vague. Finally, it was not clear 12 months ago what the prospects were for negotiated disarmament.
"But the kind of reductions that were envisaged last year are as nothing compared with what could now be achieved. We are now talking about far greater cuts, but over a somewhat longer period. I would like to see if it's possible to come to some sort of accommodation with the proponents of Composite 47. It doesn’t have to be a fudge, it doesn’t have to it doesn't have to be a shabby compromise. At this stage, I'm not sure what form this understanding could take, but I would like to think that I will be able to come to the meeting Tribune and CND are having on Sunday night and say that we have arrived at an understanding."
Mr O'Neill sees the potential for savings mainly through reducing the size of the armed forces and the civil service, though retraining and redundancy costs will be substantial in the short term. A Labour government would not seek to achieve savings by slashing expensive procurement programmes. In particular, current plans to build a new battle tank would be scaled down but not cancelled; the European Fighter Aircraft, now in the development stage, would not be dropped; and planned new frigates would go ahead, albeit with less high-tech equipment.
What, though, of Britain's "independent nuclear deterrent"? Are there no savings to be made there? Mr O'Neill nods. "We've said that we favour negotiated nuclear disarmament, and it's incumbent on the next Labour government to prove that. I'm one of the people who chaffed in the sixties when we were betrayed by a Labour government. I know Neil Kinnock feels exactly the same. We feel it is incumbent on us to give it our best shot as early as possible."
The first stage of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks will soon be over, he says. "It could well be that the return of a Labour government coincides with the beginning of the START two talks. We are hopeful that we would be able to start talking with the Chinese and the French as well as the Russians and the Americans. Nuclear disarmament has to be high on the agenda."