Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 178-195)




  178. Order, order. May I first apologise? We were delayed in an earlier meeting and things have carried on. We look forward to your contribution, having read both your own memorandum and your frequent articles. Let us start with the effect of the war in Afghanistan on the US power realities. You appear to indicate that the war direction has been largely sub-contracted by the President to the Pentagon. Is that your own view?
  (Mr Stephens) Yes, it is a view that one hears often from British and other European diplomats and politicians. One of the frustrations this Government has had and certainly other European governments have had during the conflict in Afghanistan is that they have been trying to get political decisions made only to find at the highest level that basically the President and his advisers said that it was for Donald Rumsfeld to decide, that it was for the commanders to decide. Most obviously the fairly protracted negotiations between Britain and the US over the stabilisation force and when it would go into Afghanistan, what shape it would be, were at the time complicated by the fact that the Pentagon was saying rather strongly that they did not want the complication of the stabilisation force while they were still fighting a war. I am told by people in Washington that this is in part a response to Vietnam where there was an understanding that the politicians meddled far too frequently in the conduct of the war. There is now a feeling, particularly in this administration, that if you risk American soldiers in far-off lands, you have to let the generals get on with it.

  179. Perhaps the ease or apparent ease of the success in Afghanistan has put the military on a roll which makes them think they can carry that same success into other areas, hence the axis of evil.
  (Mr Stephens) Yes, I think so. If you just watch the TV and look at Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, it is Rumsfeld who seems to be smiling rather more often than Colin Powell these days. There is a sense that the military have proved themselves and from that political power within the Bush cabinet has moved from Colin Powell towards Donald Rumsfeld. I do not know whether that is permanent. It is probably too early to say.

  180. How dangerous is that?
  (Mr Stephens) At the end of the day it is the President who decides. The complication that British Ministers have found is that the view of the British Government is a much more coherent one. The Prime Minister is much stronger than the President in some ways, so the impression I have is that power and influence ebbs and flows throughout the cabinet, but personally I think it is very dangerous if America adopts an essentially military response to the campaign against terrorism, as it cannot be won by a purely military response and it will create severe dangers both in the Middle East and for US allies.

  181. Where do we come in? What does UK influence mean in this context?
  (Mr Stephens) At the moment we are George Bush's best friend as it were.

  182. Does he listen to his best friend?
  (Mr Stephens) The evidence thus far, as I wrote in the memorandum, has been that he does and I think that the Government has rather skilfully managed to secure what influence is possible for a smaller country to secure in Washington, and one should not over-emphasise that, while retaining influence in Europe and acting as a channel for European concerns. There has been two-way traffic across the bridge that the Prime Minister likes to refer to across the Atlantic. Your earlier witness was talking about the confusion one gets from the rhetoric in Washington at the moment and if one looks at what George Bush has done as opposed to some of the rhetoric one has heard from the more conservative members of his administration, you could make a strong case that Britain has done well so far and has, as many times in the past, provided a rather good and intelligent input into US policymaking.

Mr Hamilton

  183. You said in your memorandum to us that America needs allies and that there will be an important role here for Her Majesty's Government 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. How important to the US administration is the global coalition against terrorism? How important is it really? Do you think that the US believes that in order to win this war against terrorism it really does need other allies, especially Europe and the Islamic world?

  (Mr Stephens) There are different voices. I am sure you are aware that there has been a great trail of US Under Secretaries through London in the past few weeks.

  184. We have met some of them.
  (Mr Stephens) I have met some of them as well. I am sure you will have heard one or two of them who say "We are going to do this job and if you guys are with us, that is fine, but if you are not, that is fine too. We have the power and the determination to do it and we are going to defend America and defend the homeland". I do not think one should underestimate the shock that Americans have felt in terms of their own vulnerability. If you look at what President Bush has actually said now, he has said that there are three sorts of enemies basically: there are the terrorist networks themselves, there are countries like Afghanistan and possibly Somalia, possibly Yemen, which harbour those terrorists and then there is a third set, those countries developing weapons of mass destruction, who might at some future point make those weapons available to people who would attack America or indeed attack America themselves. It seems to me that if you look at that array of enemies, in particular the last group, the idea that America can defeat Iran, North Korea and Iraq at the same time and in a sense stop the proliferation of weapons and most importantly nuclear weapons without allies seems to me totally absurd. If you just look at proliferation, where it comes from, how do you stop China, how do you stop Russia, how do you stop North Korea, providing technology to countries which may misuse it? It seems to me you do not do that by fighting wars.

Sir John Stanley

  185. Would you agree with President Bush that the top three current nation states targets for the war on terrorism in terms of the severity of their threat to the United States and possibly to the United States' allies are Iran, Iraq and North Korea? Or would you have produced a different three or variation on the three? Secondly, do you think that he was right to lump them together as an axis of evil?
  (Mr Stephens) He has misdescribed them in that it is perfectly clear that North Korea is developing weapons of mass destruction and that it has an active nuclear programme. As far as I am aware it is not a base for international terrorists and the US has not come forward with any evidence that North Korea is a base. The threat from North Korea is presumed to be that they have missile technology, they are developing a nuclear capability so they will be able to fire nuclear missiles. Iran is a threat in that it clearly wants a nuclear bomb and it has missiles capable of hitting Israel, capable of hitting Turkey and US allies. Again I do not think it is a terrorist threat in the sense that it has supported al-Qaeda or other international terrorist groups. It does support Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups. It is different. Iraq is probably a threat to all of us, but I do not see it as a terrorist threat. The threat from Iraq is that Saddam Hussein will develop the capability to attack probably Israel, perhaps Turkey and if left entirely alone would eventually develop the sort of missile technology to attack places like Europe. They seem to me to be different threats than the one posed by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

  186. Are you saying that you think none of the three countries which has been highlighted by President Bush does represent a near-, medium- conceivably even long-term threat to the United States homeland?
  (Mr Stephens) No, I am not saying that. They certainly represent a threat to US interests if not directly to the US homeland at the moment. There is certainly a case to say that if you allow proliferation of weapons of mass destruction into regimes which clearly do not share any of the civilised values of the West, then they are potentially a threat. I am just saying that I do not see them as the same sort of threat as groups like al-Qaeda and as each other. There is a gradation between them.

  187. Turning to the British Government, what do you consider to be the priorities for British foreign policy now in the post-Afghanistan war situation in trying to deal with the remainder of al-Qaeda and combatting global terrorism?
  (Mr Stephens) The immediate priority and one which is going to loom very large over the next few weeks is to get a secure continuation of a stabilisation force in Afghanistan. People are beginning to assume that everything is fine in Afghanistan and all the evidence that one hears is that it is not. There is going to be a certain amount of trans-Atlantic tension about whether the Americans are going to contribute and everyone here would know that the military here regard our own forces as over-stretched, particularly if we have to stay in Afghanistan well beyond April. There is already a certain amount of high level diplomatic traffic between London and Washington saying they have to deliver something on this force. As one European Minister, not a British one, put it the other day, there is a sense that we are washing up the dirty dishes after the Americans have been there. That is a very big issue. The other big issue will be that the Government will have to take a view on the process that might lead to military action against Iraq and whether it is feasible. It seems to me that the Prime Minister is as strong as President Bush in his view that there should be regime change in Iraq. The question seems to be how to achieve that and how to find something that might replace Saddam Hussein and be less dangerous.

  188. When you say process, are you referring to a bilateral process between the British Government and the American Government or are you alluding to an international process?
  (Mr Stephens) It has to be an international process. Waging war against Iraq without at least the tacit consent of the Russians, would be extremely difficult. If there is to be a war against Iraq or against the present regime in Iraq, it has to be on the basis of international law and some sort of international coalition; not necessarily all providing troops but a sense that the international community—and I would include Russia in that—are prepared to work towards a political settlement after such a conflict.

Mr Chidgey

  189. Is not the likely scenario and is not this the scenario America is working towards, that pressurising Iraq to accept observers back into their country, which is expected to fail, would provide a lever to persuade the UN to sanction intervention on the ground? Would that be the route you would accept America is expecting to be able to take?
  (Mr Stephens) I do not think the views in Washington are monolithic; there are different views. A number of people in Washington would be rather pleased if the inspectors got back in and were allowed freedom of access. The assumption that everyone in America wants to go to war against Iraq has to be weighed against the political risk for President Bush. If you assume, for example, that they were going to wage a proper war in the sense of committing 200,00, 300,000, 400,000 American troops, you have to assume that President Bush is ready and willing to take a huge political risk. At the moment, if you look at the crude politics of it, Bush is doing extremely well. A war against Iraq which cost the lives of a large number of American soldiers, which it might do, would not do his electoral chances that much good in 2004.

  190. Would this not by why he would be seeking a coalition backed by the sanctions from the UN?
  (Mr Stephens) I suppose I do agree with you. What I was trying to say was that I do not think there is a monolithic view in the US. The pressure domestically and the international pressure, will be to make sure that any military action against Iraq has a foundation in international law and is widely backed. Whether you can say crudely that they are just going through this charade on sanctions in order to get to the final point, I am not sure, because some people would be really pleased if inspectors got back in.

  191. May I turn back to the comments you were making on British foreign policy? The Committee last autumn visited Washington and New York eight weeks after 11 September. It was very clear to us at that time that in the hours and days following the attack on the World Trade Centre, the United Kingdom through its various agencies and arms was a very effective and probably essential ally to the United States in prosecution of the media reaction to the terrorist attack. Certainly my view was that at that stage, because of that dependence the United States found they had on our involvement, it gave the British Government a window of opportunity to influence America on how it proceeded in the formation and then leading of the coalition in the war against terrorism. I suspect now that window of opportunity is beginning to close rather rapidly. I do not believe for a minute that the United States are prepared to have themselves dependent upon others to prosecute their own defence of the homeland. Would you perceive that to be the case? In that scenario what would be the most effective way you believe the British Government could continue to maintain its influence on American foreign policy in regard to the war against terrorism?
  (Mr Stephens) The point you made about the US not being willing to be dependent on others to defend itself is a point which is made often by Rumsfeld. He said famously that the mission has to define the coalition and the coalition must not be allowed to define the mission. That is a false assumption. My assumption is that when they think about it carefully the Americans realise that they need support, whether it is the Russians allowing them to use bases in the satellite states, in Afghanistan, whether it is intelligence material not just from Western allies but from the Russians, even the Chinese I am told have provided them with intelligence. The premise that the Americans can go it alone is a false premise, even though some Americans will say that is what they intend to do.

  192. That is my point. Is there a strong lobby in the administration for the United States to try to develop their system so they can go it alone?
  (Mr Stephens) Yes. If you listen to Richard Perle publicly, who is not in the administration but is close to Rumsfeld and people like Bolton at the State Department, there is that sense that if they have to they can do it. I just do not think that is a practical proposition. As far as Britain is concerned, I think the British national interest is in maintaining a co-ordinated coalition against terrorism because I happen to think that these countries and these groups are a threat to Britain as well as to the US. The Government needs to think carefully about Iraq. I personally do not find the idea of military action against Saddam Hussein's regime a terrible idea, but I do find quite unnerving the possible consequences in the region if it is not with international support under international law. The British interest is in continuing to put to the Americans that we shall be resolute in supporting sensible military as well as diplomatic action. Our other interest is saying to the Europeans, as I said in my memorandum, that you cannot just carp. The Americans have been pressing issues like proliferation for many years and export controls and we have to take those seriously. You could say that there is a contradiction in the American position because it will not sign some of these international treaties, on the other hand there are export regimes and there are Europeans who will say to you that dual use equipment which still finds its way to Iraq via Jordan stamped made in wherever but maybe Germany, France, maybe Britain, shows that Europe has not been entirely honest in its enforcement of some of these regimes. Europe has to have a policy which says we can effectively contain and prevent these regimes developing these weapons if it is to say to the Americans, "Let's not start new wars against them".

Mr Illsley

  193. I recall when the Committee was in the United States in 2000 we were talking to staffers on Jesse Helm's committee who were telling us then that when the Bush administration came in it would withdraw from every multilateral treaty it was involved in, it would go unilateralist, it would involve itself in individual treaties and move away from all the multilateral arms control treaties and all the rest of it. Last year in November I remember distinctly sitting in John Bolton's office, the Under Secretary of State, and looking at a cartoon on his wall which had a picture of George Bush screwing up treaties and throwing them over his shoulder to the three European leaders behind him, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Schroeder. When I questioned him on this, his attitude was simply the monolithic one to which you have been referring, that they are going to go it alone, they can do it on their own, they do not need the so-called "no good crummy allies" somewhere in the Middle East. The idea was they should go and do it. That point of view which was put to us does not sit with your idea that America cannot do it without allies. The impression is, the public perception is, that they are going to.
  (Mr Stephens) They are making the running. I have spoken to John Bolton and he clearly does not represent the State Department. There is a contradiction. He was actually over here a couple of weeks ago talking to European governments, saying "Let's tighten up some of these arms control regimes", the nuclear regime or whatever. On the one hand he is saying they do not need any of this stuff. On the other hand he is going round Europe saying the regulation needs tightening up and the controls. Bush does not say that. You are right about people like Bolton—what I was saying earlier about the conduct of the war having given this great big fillip to the Rumsfeld/Bolton/Wolfowitz, maybe Cheyney sort of axis—but they do not yet represent US policy. What Bush has actually done has not been in tune with that except in the sense that there have been periods when he has turned down political requests from Europe because he said he wanted Rumsfeld running the war. Someone was telling me the other day that there are 80 or 90 British military personnel at Centcom in Florida, so they are not shutting us out completely.

  194. My view is entirely the opposite, that our influence over there is minimal and our influence on the conduct of the war is minimal. You mentioned George Bush's re-election possibilities. I seem to recall that even before 11 September articles in the press stated that Colin Powell had been sidelined in favour of Donald Rumsfeld simply because Colin Powell was an electoral threat to Bush. Do you think there is any truth in that?
  (Mr Stephens) There were articles and Time magazine famously did a cover "Where is this man?". Equally these were many articles saying that Rumsfeld was in trouble, not because of policy reasons but because he was such a difficult person and there was lots of infighting. So there was a question mark over Rumsfeld's future. Bush cannot sack Colin Powell, for the rather crude reason that he is black and he is a much admired politician.

  195. I do not think it was a question of sacking him. It was simply sidelining him and reducing his influence.
  (Mr Stephens) He clearly does not have influence at the moment. What I was trying to say earlier was that there is a bit of ebb and flow here and it is clear at the moment that Colin Powell does not look comfortable and Rumsfeld is on TV all the time smiling, looking very happy, giving interviews to the Daily Telegraph.

  Chairman: That is a happy note on which to end. Thank you very much indeed for your help. The Committee will now continue in private session.

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