On the Chilcot Report

by Sir Edward Leigh MP [House of Commons, 13 July 2016]

Weapons of mass destruction were held to be a vital part of the justification for war. The Chilcot report found that WMD development programmes were far more advanced in Iran, Libya and North Korea than in Iraq. The imminence of an Iraqi threat to the United Kingdom was simply non-existent. The report notes that a November 2001 Joint Intelligence Committee assessment found that Saddam Hussein “refused to permit any Al Qaeda activity in Iraq”.

I believe that many of those who voted for war and are now seeking to justify their support for it should be held to account, particularly the former Prime Minister. The Chilcot report is absolutely clear—this is a message for all of us ordinary Back Benchers—that there were severe doubts at the time, even in published documents, that Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction.

I want to read from Hansard what I said on 24 September 2002, not in any sense to say, “I told you so,” but to establish that we as Back Benchers do not necessarily always have to believe what we are told by Front Benchers, experts, Whips and the Government. We have a duty to look at our conscience. I said:

“I do not believe that it is the job of the UN—or, even more problematically, of the US backed by the UK—to change a regime in the middle east. Leaving aside questions of international law, what are the practicalities? There are nearly 30 Arab nations, and not one is a democracy. Trying to impose our ideas of democracy on Iraq may unleash democratic Kurdish and Shia movements that could lead to the dissolution of the country. It would be wrong to believe that, from the Arab point of view, our system is necessarily superior to theirs.”—[Official Report, 24 September 2002; Vol. 390, c. 74.]

I believe that those messages are as right today as they were then. We have to distinguish between totalitarian movements such as ISIS, which are a real threat to us, and authoritarian regimes, however unpleasant. We should not necessarily seek to overthrow the latter.

On 24 September 2002, I went on to say:

“An attack, or the threat of an attack, may be justified on the basis of the breaking of UN resolutions, but I suspect that that will not be the real trigger—many countries are in breach of UN resolutions. Let us be serious. There are three sides of a triangle to justify a war: capability, means and intent. Does Saddam have the capability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction? We have the dossier, and I am prepared to accept that he does”—

but I was misled on that, as were many of us—

“but I would like to hear more about the weapons of mass destruction held by other countries in the region—Iran, Syria and Israel—and by other rogue states, notably North Korea.

Does Saddam have the means to deliver those weapons of mass destruction to the west? Nobody seriously suggests that he can do so militarily… The suggestion, then, is that Saddam will deliver the weapons not by conventional military means but by clandestine means. Where is the evidence of his links to al-Qaeda? What would he gain by such links? Are there terrorists already capable of inflicting devastating damage on our economy? Would not our acting alone make us a more likely target for Muslim fundamentalists? Are we not uniquely vulnerable to terrorist attacks, as an open society with no identification cards, and with the London underground, Heathrow and the channel tunnel? Means of delivery—the second side of the triangle—is problematical, not proven”.—[Official Report, 24 September 2002; Vol.73, c. 75-76.]

Given the messages from Chilcot and from this debate, that message is as apposite today as it was then. In trying to change the middle east, we should not look to overthrow authoritarian regimes that we do not like. Rather, we should deal with what is a threat to our society and our people. ISIS is a threat to our society and our people, but regimes such as that of Assad are not necessarily such a threat.

I went on to say:

“The most difficult of the three factors is intent. What would Saddam gain by attacking the west, apart from his own immediate destruction? Has he not outlived all his foreign and domestic opponents by being at least rational and not suicidal? I do not think that anyone seriously suggests that he intends to attack the west. Would he attack Israel, which already has a nuclear deterrent?…Is the proposed attack really about a new concept of global thinking? That is the issue. Is the Truman doctrine—the concept of deterrence that has preserved peace and stability for more than 50 years—to be replaced by a new Bush doctrine of using a pre-emptive strike to overthrow dangerous regimes that could pose a threat?”.

I repeat that these messages are as true for us today as they were then. We should abide by the Truman doctrine of containment and deterrence, and not necessarily seek to impose our ideas on regimes that we dislike.

I went on to say:

“Where will the Bush doctrine take us? Where will it stop? What are the tests? A military junta is allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon in Pakistan but not in Iraq and, presumably, not in North Korea or Iran. Pakistan was only righting the balance with India, and Saddam would claim that he was righting the balance with Israel.

I do not believe that the case for attacking Iraq unilaterally, without the UN, has yet been made. That is not to say that it is wrong to threaten force—that is the only language that Saddam understands. No doubt there will be weeks of frustration. No doubt when the UN teams go in there will be more frustration and delays. However, the fact remains that after 1998, the UN contained Saddam and kept him on some sort of leash.

Finally, I remain of the belief that it is safe to contain rather than to threaten destruction of Saddam’s regime. If he is threatened with destruction, he could act irrationally, with incalculable consequences for the world community. Let us march in step with fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council and insist on weapons inspections, backed by the use of international force if they are not complied with. That is the right path to take”.—[Official Report, 24 September 2002; Vol.73, c. 76.]

I believe that Chilcot is a powerful testimony for us all today. Never again must we be led astray along a path towards a dangerous war such as the one that has unleashed untold misery in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of decisions taken in this House. I say never again. As ordinary Members of Parliament, if this ever happens again, we must be prepared to question the Executive and, whatever the cost to our career, vote against that Executive and vote down war.