Willie Rennie on Iraq and four tests for future military intervention

Willie Rennie - Some rights reserved by Liberal DemocratsThis week the Scottish Parliament debated the Iraq War, ten years on. This could have disintegrated into a “this is why we need independence” bunfight, but, actually, it ended up being one of those occasions when you could be proud of your Parliament for being thoughtful and mindful of the terrible human cost of this conflict.

Willie Rennie spoke for the Liberal Democrats in the debate and actually was applauded by the SNP benches who are, shall we say, not usually so friendly towards him. He visited Iraq as a member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and he described how he had heard the sirens, alarms and missile attacks and, just a few weeks later attended the funeral of a soldier in his constituency.

“When the sirens whined, we dived to the floor…”

Willie talked about his visit to Iraq in 2007 and the contrast between the visitors’ and locals’ reaction to being under fire:

When the sirens whined, we dived to the floor, struggling with our flak jackets and helmets, yet the local politicians carried on as if nothing had happened, despite the risk. They had become accustomed to the sirens and the missiles.

That was repeated over and over again during the three-day visit of the House of Commons Defence Committee to Basra, Umm Qasr and Baghdad. During that visit, 40 missiles fell within range. Even the green zone in Baghdad was not spared the infringements. We were due to meet the Iraqi president, but his house had been hit that very day. The missiles were a normal, daily occurrence. They were a matter of fact.

But one of these attacks had tragic, human consequences for a local community in Scotland – and there was empathy for other local communities in Iraq:

A normal occurrence in Iraq, which happened every day of the week at the time, cost Scott Kennedy his life, and it cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends and relatives. We felt it in Fife that Scott Kennedy had lost his life, but in Iraq many others whom we did not know also lost their lives. Just today, another 48 people have died and scores have been injured in bomb attacks in Baghdad. The war cost us £1 trillion but, a decade on, Iraq is still rocked with instability and division. The war was based on a false premise. It was illegal, costly, bloody and just plain wrong.

“Doing nothing can be as bad as cavalier adventurisn”

Willie then set out four tests which proposals for future military intervention must pass:

However, failure in Iraq should not preclude future action elsewhere. It should not alter our collective responsibility to support freedom and protect human rights around the world. Doing nothing can be as bad as cavalier adventurism. No war is ever won; it is just that some are less bad than others. However, always sitting on our hands can be even worse.

What tests, then, would we apply to future military action? If we are to have a serious debate, that is what we should focus on. I have four simple tests. The first is whether military action is legal under international law. Secondly, does it command local and regional support? That is also important. Thirdly, are we confident that it will alleviate suffering? Finally, and often most controversially, is the United Nations behind it, or, in the absence of that support, are there reasons to intervene on clear humanitarian grounds?

Those are the questions that we need to apply to future conflicts. In Libya, I would say that the limited special forces action and air strikes relieved suffering. We secured the support of Arab countries surrounding Libya. We also secured a strong mandate from the UN and our action was judged legal. I would say that it passed the test. We also passed the test in Mali.

He added that when it comes to Syria, we need to constantly re-apply these tests and acknowledged the difficulty of that situation.

Later he reinforced his argument.

If we comply with those four tests, we should not leave a nation and the people who are suffering within it high and dry.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Ed Shepherd 25th Mar '13 - 7:37am

    I think those four tests are deeply flawed. I don’t think the Libyan intervention passed all of those tests anyway. The current intervention in Syria certainly does not pass them.

  • Tony Dawson 25th Mar '13 - 8:26am

    When will the penny drop that this little country on the edge of Europe which is fast losing its cheap raw materials and export markets cannot afford to go play global policeman every decade or so or financially support a so-called ‘Nuclear Deterrent’ (renewed or otherwise). Take that aberrant spending out of the equation and we might (just) be able to find a way out or our present economic predicament.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 25th Mar '13 - 9:07am

    Ed, do you want to elaborate on that? Where edo you think they fell short? And Willie has specifically mentioned Syria.

  • Ed Shepherd 25th Mar '13 - 8:43pm

    TEST 1: Legal under international law. I agree with this one. But international law is not always clear…(Iraq, Libya)
    TEST 2: Does it command local and regional support? Deeply flawed. What if 49% of the population of a country oppose our intervention? Where is the tipping point at which support within a country justifies our launching an invasation? What if many of those in a country who support our intervention are doing so for their own evil reasons (such as wanting us to remove a secular regime that protects Jews (Iraq) or Christians (Syria)? What do we mean by regional support? Would it include neighbouring countries that have their own reasons for wanting to get rid of a regime? (For instance, oil-rich Sunni states who want a secular regime removed (Syria))
    TEST 3: Confidence that intervention will relieve suffering. Requires 20:20 foresight that is rare amongst today’s school-university-researcher-MP career politicians who have never had a proper job. What if intervention will reduce suffering for some but increase suffering for others (such as supporters of the Gadaffi regime being imprisoned or silenced or conditions for groups such as women getting worse (Syria, again)).
    TEST 4: “Are the UN in favour or are there humanitarian reasons for intervention?” If our government are not willing to abide by all UN resolutions then they should say so. But that would conflict with TEST 1.
    The trouble is that in Syria we are already intervening (supplying flak vests and AFVs to opposition leaders is intervention) without me being aware of anyone in government telling me when these tests were applied and who applied them.

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