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Speech by The Hon. David Gore-Booth, CMG

The Hon. David Gore-Booth, CMG

High Commissioner in India

On: The Middle East

25 October 1999

“I am astonished to discover 233 of you here this evening.  Even the European-Atlantic Group which arranges most things very carefully will not, I think, have arranged 233 because the JP233 is the bomb we are dropping on Iraq’s airfields.  When I was invited to be a poor substitute for HRH Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, Thomas Freidman’s dictum was no doubt forgotten, that when it comes to discussing the Addle East, people go totally insane.

There are here many former British Ambassadors and many actual Arab Ambassadors, and it is perhaps impertinent of me to attempt to dilate on the subject which is the problems of the Middle East, the problem which Jordan faces, and which is a very difficult one.  I don’t often find. Myself in agreement with Prime Minister Shamir, but the other day he described Jordan’s position as being between the anvil and the hammer, and on that I can agree with him.  Having said that, I think there is no point in hiding the differences that we have had with Jordan over the last few months, essentially over the character and ambitions of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and it is these that have brought us to the unimaginable situation in which we find ourselves today. 34 years after Suez and 20 years after our withdrawal from East of Suez, British forces are on the ground in the Middle East in larger numbers than at any time since World War Two, at Arab invitation, and with United Nations backing.

Why did this happen and what are the lessons for the future?  How is it that a man like Saddam Hussein could emerge in the Middle East and accumulate so much power?  I want just briefly to go back through the history to try to see how it might look from the other end of the telescope – from Saddam’s end.  The Middle East has been a cockpit for conflicting ambitions for centuries.  I don’t want to go back to Greeks and Romans, but just since the beginning of this century starting with the Sykes-Pico Agreement in 1916, which in effect gave the British and the French the right to carve the place up and draw lines on the map, lines which we are currently interested in.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 provided for a Jewish homeland without damaging, – I am not quoting the rights of the inhabitants already there – the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, and the installation of Hashamite regimes in Amman and Baghdad, leaving an outstanding Iraqi claim on Kuwait which was one of the reasons why, not the only one by any means, there were strains between the United Kingdom and Iraq which came to a head during the Second World War when there was an attempt to take Iraq out of an Alliance with Britain and into an Alliance with Germany.  It failed, but it showed there were strains.

The establishment of Israel in 1948, Suez in 1956, the U.S. intervention in Lebanon and the British intervention in Jordan in 1958 certainly had an effect on the situation in Baghdad where there was a Revolution against the Hashamite king leading to the emergence of Abucree Kassan who, in 1961, threatened Kuwait, and who went to avert that threat? – The British.  Subsequent coups led eventually to the emergence of the Ba’th party under Ahmed Husslain Backer, and then subsequently the man we have come to know and hate, Saddam Hussein.

In 1967 and 1973 there were wars between Israel and the Arabs.  In 1975 Iran and Iraq signed a Treaty at a time when the Shah ruled, then came the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Shah was out.  Then came the war between Iraq and Iran leading to an economic and political bankruptcy in Iraq, matched by a huge military overhang, and it was that military overhang which led to the invasion of Kuwait.  The background, therefore, to our present situation is one of violence allied to an intense suspicion of the United Kingdom, which, to quote the Daily Telegraph some months back, certainly has a strong historical association with the drama, and more recently with the United States.  When 1 was in Baghdad as a Third Secretary in the 60’s it was commonplace for the British to be accused of being behind any slight misadventure in the Iraqi body politic.  Saddam’s motives were the pursuit of power, whether personal power which he has pursued ruthlessly, national power, which he has pursued ruthlessly, or regional power, which he has pursued ruthlessly.

What, people ask, was so special about Kuwait?  We have lots of jokes about carrots and tomatoes and things like that.  What was so special about Kuwait, leaving aside the fact that we absolutely do not accept the Iraqi claim to it, is that its annexation was and is a threat to the collective security of the post-war world, at precisely the moment when the Soviet threat to that collective security has been removed.  Oil was, of course, an element in this, but it was Saddam Hussein who wanted the oil, not the West.

What are the lessons to be drawn from this appalling situation?  There are a number.  Democracies do not go to war, Dictatorships do.  Dictators usually fall if they do so – and lose.  You only have to think of the Greek Colonels, Gen. Galtierie and so on, which is one reason why Saddam Hussein may fight on rather than surrender.  Dictators can swing national purchasing power towards military acquisition.  One of the features of the present situation is the astonishing arms procurement network which Saddam operated, and the astonishing arsenal which he built up, with, as some people correctly say, connivance from outside Powers.  Dictators are not susceptible to Sanctions since internal difficulties are masked by external ambitions.  Dictators, have unrivalled access to – and ability to – manipulate the Media.  It is very difficult for independent societies like our own to cope with this, which should not be taken as an argument for Censorship.  Middle East dictators pump themselves up on Palestine, and in this case, in addition and previously, on the gap between rich and poor in the Arab World, and the presence of foreign forces there.  This is a potent appeal in poor and populace Arab countries, with the exception of the most poor and most populace of them all – Egypt – where there are other factors at work and which show, in my view, what a pivotable position Egypt occupies in the Arab World.

Are there some pointers to the future?  I believe so.  War, as Professor Laurie Freidman has put it, represents a failure in diplomacy, and as someone who has been around the Middle East since 1964 I feel it personally as a failure of diplomacy.  But, says Freidman, “War is not the conclusion of diplomacy”.  We must look ahead to a new Security Structure in the Gulf which will have to derive from the Countries of the Region themselves.  There will be no permanent presence of foreign ground forces.  There is, in my estimation, no chance of American and British ground forces remaining in the area.  There will be a new effort to resolve the Palestinian dispute, and with it the Israeli occupation of territory, not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but also in Syria and Lebanon.  There will, most likely, be common thieves, and enhanced credibility for the United Nations, a reduction on arms supplies (especially non-conventional arms supplies) and I think defence manufacturers in the West and East are going to have to start turning swords into ploughshares (to use the cliché) the introduction of confidence-building measures, perhaps derived from those that have started to be introduced in Europe, and a greater spread of wealth.  It is not that the people who have wealth necessarily must give it away, or that wealth derived from oil is different from wealth derived from coffee or copper or whatever, but sensible arrangements require a sensible distribution of regional wealth and more accountability of Government, especially in Iraq.

In my view, puralism, – and I purposely don’t say Westminster morals or Washington morals or Paris morals, I say, puralism – is the only sound shield against the spread of other isms, whether fundamentalism, or Ba’thisrn, or, as I think it has actually become, Saddamism.

By way of a personal epilogue, and I hope my remarks may stimulate some discussion, 1 came this evening mindful of what one well-known British writer has called the time-honoured and extraordinary F.O. knack for getting the Middle East wrong.  I am satisfied – and I have been dealing with this subject for 26 years – that there was no alternative to war.  I am convinced also that, hateful though this is, it is in the best interest of the Arab World as well as of the International Community as a whole, that Saddam Hussein be defeated.  The Pope’s favourite line about a crisis- perhaps a Middle East crisis – is said to be that there are only two solutions to it. The realistic and the miraculous: the realistic being divine intervention, and the miraculous being agreement -between-the parties.  I have not excluded at some point – and I hope not too far off – agreement between the parties.”

(From an Address given to a Dinner-Discussion of the European-Atlantic Group on the Middle East in London, 24th January, 1991)