Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from Philip Stephens


  1.  HMG's role in the international coalition against terrorism has been a diplomatic and political success. The defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the destruction of the al-Qaeda network in that country quite obviously serve the UK's national interest. The Government has exercised measurable influence in America's conduct of the campaign and helped mould the wider European response. It has strengthened the transatlantic alliance while exercising political leadership in Europe. The UK acted quickly and decisively in support of the US and as a consequence, to borrow a cliché, has punched significantly above its weight. Its public solidarity with Washington allowed HMG to reinforce the instincts of those in the Administration who wanted a proportionate response and who recognised the importance of distinguishing between Islamic terrorists and Islam itself.

  2.   But. This success in what has been called the first phase of the campaign does not assure the same outcome in subsequent stages. Afghanistan provided an immediate and discrete focus for America's response to the events of September 11. Removal of the Taliban and defeat of al-Qaeda were objectives around which a large number of governments could quite quickly coalesce. Similarly, international action to clamp down on al-Qaeda cells in Europe, to strengthen anti-terrorism laws and to tighten financial controls against terrorist funds have been relatively uncontroversial. The second and subsequent stages of the US campaign, however, are less straightforward. George W Bush's State of the Union address with its references to an "Axis of Evil" has widened the scope of possible US military action. The effectiveness in Afghanistan of high-precision and "smart" weaponry and the limited number of US casualties has tilted the balance in favour of conservative hawks in the Administration. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, Mr Bush identified two threats to US security, namely: terrorists with international reach and the countries that harbour them. The State of the Union added a third: hostile regimes such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea which are developing weapons of mass destruction. While there is clearly a common western interest in preventing proliferation of such weapons, there is no consensus on how such countries can best be restrained. The preference of some in the US Administration for a military response—particularly against Iraq—will clearly strain the international coalition. And there are evident differences between the US and European approaches to Iran and North Korea. It is not at all clear what influence HMG will have in shaping these subsequent phases and whether, if the hawks in Washington prevail, Britain can avoid a rift with either the US or with its major European allies. The limits of British influence have already been shown by the refusal of the US Administration to adopt a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While HMG has rightly emphasised the role of nation-building and conflict resolution, America's victory in Afghanistan has encouraged those in Washington who see the fight against terrorism as essentially military.

  3.  The coming months will offer a formidable test not just of UK diplomacy but of the cohesion of the international coalition. US efforts to destroy al-Qaeda cells in Somalia, Yemen and the Philippines may prove relatively uncontroversial. Military action to remove Saddam Hussein would be deeply divisive and carry great risks, military and political. The Prime Minister often portrays the UK as a bridge across the Atlantic. That strength of that bridge may well be severely tested in coming months.


  4.  The UK has had a pivotal role in the international coalition against terrorism since the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11. HMG has been seen in Washington as America's closest ally and, in Europe, as the most influential outside voice in the White House.

  The military campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was carried out overwhelmingly by American forces. But British troops, notably the SAS, played a significant part in the most dangerous ground fighting. The RAF also has provided important in-flight refuelling for US aircraft. The firing of British submarine cruise missiles early on in the campaign was largely an act of political symbolism. British forces at present comprise the most important element in the international stabilisation force in Afghanistan. Several dozen senior office and military planners from the UK are presently based at Centcom in Florida, the headquarters of the US military campaign.

  5.  On the diplomatic front, the Prime Minister has travelled extensively to build support for the coalition, particularly among Islamic countries. He has attempted, with limited success, to put the terrorist threat in the wider context of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and, to greater effect, to help stabilise relations between India and Pakistan. The prime minister has used his influence in Washington to urge a considered, cautious approach to a widening of the fight against terrorism and to press the case for the broadest possible coalition including the acceptance by the US Administration of military contributions from other European states. Downing Street also took a lead role in the establishment of the international media campaign to explain and promote the aims of the coalition.

  6.  Much of the diplomacy has been at head of Government level—a characteristic of modern international relations. But in spite of the expansion of the cabinet office and the Prime Minister's office in recent years, the infrastructure for this diplomacy is still provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Secretary has also travelled extensively and the FCO's role has been important in framing many of the international agreements which represent the diplomatic response to September 11. At the United Nations, for example, HMG took the lead in the passage on September 28 of Resolution 1373. This was a ground-breaking initiative that imposed obligations on all member states to suppress terrorist financing and deny terrorists safe havens. HMG's representative in New York, Jeremy Greenstock, chairs the Counter Terrorism Committee set up to implement the resolution. The FCO was similarly at the forefront of efforts to frame Resolution 1378 which provided for international recognition of the interim government of Hamid Karzai. Nato's decision on October 2 to invoke Article 5 of its founding charter in support of the US was in part at least a response to UK diplomacy. Within the European Union, the UK gave strong backing to measures to tighten anti-terrorist measures, including the agreement on a common arrest warrant. HMG was the strongest advocate of the establishment of a military stabilisation force in Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban. British troops provided the backbone of that force.

  7.  The critical pressure on Pakistan to withdraw its support from the Taliban and al-Qaeda came from the US Administration. But HMG has been active in reinforcing the subsequent rehabilitation of the Musharraf government and in helping to ease tensions with India over Kashmir. The relationship with Saudi Arabia has been more difficult to manage, in spite of a visit by the Prime Minister. Similarly, the refusal by the Iranian government to accept a new British ambassador in Teheran has undercut efforts to engage the administration of President Khatami. The inclusion of Iran in the axis of evil reflects a view in Washington that the hard-liners led by Ayatollah Khomeini control the military and security apparatus of the Iranian state—a view reinforced by Israel's interception of a large shipment of Iranian arms destined for the Palestinians.

  On the other hand, both the Prime Minister and the foreign secretary took an active part in encouraging Russia's Vladimir Putin to see the aftermath of September as an opportunity to join the mainstream of western policymaking. Elsewhere, the US administration was initially reluctant to involve the Group of Eight in the international counter-terrorism effort but at the UK instigation's it has broadened the remit of its Financial Action Task Force to include action to halt the flow of terrorist funding.

  8.  Beneath the public solidarity there have been occasional semi-public differences between HMG and the US Administration. Washington was initially reluctant to accept military contributions, albeit token, from other European nations and some in the Pentagon are said to have opposed even a UK contribution. American experience during the Kosovo campaign, a Nato operation, has persuaded the Pentagon that it must retain absolute control and command of military operations in which it is taking the lead. On the UK side there has been occasional frustration with the extent to which the White House passed control of the Afghanistan campaign to its military commanders, at the expense sometimes of the wider political picture. Donald Rumsfeld and General Franks were the principal opponents of the establishment of the international stabilisation force and for a time the White House was reluctant to over-rule them. This division of responsibilities may be part of a continuing reaction to the Vietnam War, when micro-management of the US military by politicians was widely seen to be seriously damaging. More broadly, HMG has had to steer a path between the rivalries in the US Administration, notably between the Rumsfeld-led hawks and the more cautious State Department under Colin Powell. But in so far as it is possible to see from the outside, these occasional hiccups have not disturbed the strong relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Bush. The Prime Minister is expected to meet again with the president in the spring.


  9.  Behind this evidently strong relationship, however, there are clear differences of emphasis in respect of the shape of what all agree will be a lengthy campaign to defeat international terrorism. While HMG has stressed that military action can be only one element in a broad-based effort including new international aid strategies and a commitment to help rebuild "failed" states, the tendency in Washington has been to focus on the military response. As one senior member of HMG has remarked, aid and nation-building are not words that strike chords in Washington.

  10.  Mr Blair set out his approach in his address to the Labour party conference last September and in subsequent speeches, including at the Lord Mayor's Banquet in November. The starting point is that the events of September 11 showed us the dark side of globalisation: the interconnectedness that has swept away barriers to trade, investment and technological progress has also torn down the frontiers that once protected the west from the consequences of chaos elsewhere. Failed states, poverty, and military conflict are the breeding ground for international terrorism. Mr Blair's doctrine says that a moral imperative to act in support of the less fortunate is now matched by the practical need to secure the west's security. September 11 ushered in one of those rare periods in history when principles and realpolitik sit in happy coincidence. Past wars had been fought over frontiers. The fight against terrorism is about values.

  11.  The corollary of this approach is that the defeat of terrorism requires a cohesive alliance between the US and other liberal democracies. In the words of Chris Patten, the former Conservative Party chairman and present EU Commissioner for External Affairs, American leadership should be exercised in partnership. Military victories over terrorism should be combined with an international effort to tackle the chaos and poverty in which terrorism thrives.

  There are few echoes of this in Washington—even though Mr Powell's State Department has consistently emphasised the importance of the international coalition. For understandable reasons—the shock of September 11 and the fear engendered by the anthrax episode—the US focus is on what it perceives as immediate threats and the instinct is to reply with military force. There is no obvious appetite for the more arduous and inevitably less immediate task of nation-building. As for the coalition, Donald Rumsfeld has summed up the prevailing approach within the Administration: the mission should determine the coalition, not vice-versa.

  12.  HMG says that for the moment it is relaxed with the present US stance, though there is visible irritation with the refusal to take a more proactive role in encouraging the resumption of peace talks in the Middle East. The UK government shares the ambition of a regime change in Iraq. Any debate will be about means. Mr Blair has noted the contrast between some of the bellicose rhetoric of hard-line Conservatives in Washington and the calculated, cautious approach taken by Mr Bush during the Afghanistan campaign. The identification of Iran, North Korea and Iraq as part of an axis of evil has not been followed by specific military threats. Colin Powell has said that the Administration is examining all options. And there are some powerful voices arguing for pre-emptive military action against Iraq. But Mr Bush has yet to weigh the risks of what would be a hazardous campaign involving very large numbers of US troops as well as a rift with many of America's allies. The undoubted unilateralist instincts now visible in Washington do not yet betoken a serious breach with Europe. Here, though, there is a certain emphasis on the word "yet".


  13.  It would be a mistake for Britain in particular and Europe more generally to underestimate the extent to which September 11 has changed the political climate in the US. In many respects it marks the passing of the post-Vietnam era—a long period following the fall of Saigon during which the US was extremely loathe to risk its GIs in military entanglements abroad. When it did so, as in the Gulf War, it was on the basis that advanced technology and overwhelming force would minimise US casualties. The perceived threat to the US from terrorism—and from terrorists armed in the future with weapons of mass destruction—has changed that calculation. Political and public opinion is far more willing now to contemplate the deployment of US military force—and the concomitant risk of casualties. The State of the Union address made it clear that so-called "rogue" states known to be developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons are now seen a major threat to the US homeland and, as such, possible targets for military action. Key figures in the Administration are content for such action to be taken unilaterally.

  14.  This change demands that America's European friends take proliferation of weapons of mass destruction far more seriously and work with the US to intensify the diplomatic and economic pressure on those responsible. As far as Iraq is concerned, a military campaign against the present regime would be fraught with danger —the more so for as long as the US is seen as supporting the hard-line stance of the present government in Israel. But if Europe, and indeed the UK, are to persuade the US to forestall, it must also be able to demonstrate that America's security is best served by concerted action by the international coalition: that for all its status as the single superpower, America needs allies. There will be an important role here for HMG both in persuading the US to continue to act with caution and proportionality and in reminding other European governments that it is not enough to carp about American unilateralism.

Philip Stephens

February 2002

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