BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 28.10.01

Interview: PETER KILFOYLE MP, Defence Minister 1999-2000 and BRUCE GEORGE MP, Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee

Discuss American and British war aims.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Tony Blair is worried that we might be getting a bit faint hearted about the campaign, he wants us to evoke traditional British resolve, because as he put it "Britain is a very moral nation with a strong sense of what is right and wrong." To judge by the polls, the vast majority of us do support the attacks against Afghanistan. But in the past week or two there have been some rumblings of unease, not least within the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party. A small group of back-benchers set up an outfit called Labour Against the Bombing. Well I'm joined on the line now by two Labour back-benchers, one of them is the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, Bruce George and the other is a former minister in the Defence Department, Peter Kilfoyle. Can I come to you first, Mr Kilfoyle and ask you whether you think it's a good idea for Tony Blair to present this as a moral war? PETER KILFOYLE: Well it depends on your perspective in terms of morality. I think that the original premise for this war was quite rightly the apprehension and bringing to trial of Osama Bin Laden on the grounds that there was prima facie evidence against him. I think the problem that Tony Blair faces and we all face, is the fact that the war aims have become somewhat blurred and we now have people like Donald Rumsfeld, the America Defence Secretary, saying Bin Laden may never be apprehended and it does lead many people to question what the purpose of the exercise is. HUMPHRYS: Given all that then, do you think the bombing should stop? KILFOYLE: I don't think the bombing is very effective frankly. I can't understand what it is that we are bombing nearly three weeks' on. I certainly can't understand why we are using things like cluster bombs if we are to believe that many of these Taliban are said to be moving in amongst the civilian population. It's bound to cause indiscriminate damage to those innocent people who have been subject to the Taliban and many other depredations down the years. HUMPHRYS: So it should stop? KILFOYLE: Yes. HUMPHRYS: Right, let me put that to you Mr George. What do you think, should it stop? BRUCE GEORGE: I don't think it should stop. I think the United States should make far more efforts in ensuring that non-civilians are the ones who are targeted. Peter and I know each other very well, I don't think we are all that miles apart in our view that the Prime Minister has made every effort to convince the British public and the Parliamentary Labour Party and Parliament that the cause is just, that the whole endeavour has United Nations' approval, it is a proportionate response to an appalling, an appalling and provoked attack and I think a very large majority of the British public and the Parliamentary Labour Party are behind him. Those people who oppose this war and I do not point a finger at Peter but many of those who oppose this war oppose every other war that I can remember, going back to the Falklands and certainly every one beyond. HUMPHRYS: But the point that Mr Kilfoyle made and the point that many other people make is and you acknowledged it yourself that in war innocent people get killed and obviously the longer this war goes on, the more, inevitably, the more innocent people will be killed. There must be a point - do you believe - there should be a point to which it stops? GEORGE: Well I don't think it's after three weeks. And anyone who believes that a war can be over by Christmas or Ramadan or in a short period of time, I think has no sense of history. I think the Prime Minister is right in saying, most people have said this is going to be a long haul and the government have said endlessly it very much regrets the errors that have led to civilians being killed but there is clear evidence, clear evidence John that the Taliban are taking full advantage and using propaganda that we could not even resort to in building up resentment towards those mistakes and magnifying the number of people who have been killed, or wounded. They are very shrewd at how they are trying to persuade public opinion. HUMPHRYS: Given all of that, how do you respond when Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, says as he did a couple of hours ago that this campaign might go on "indefinitely" was his words, does that worry you? GEORGE: Well I suspect the fight against terrorism will go on.. HUMPHRYS: ..sure, but that's slightly different isn't it. GEORGE: ...years and years and years. And this is a terrorist act and I suspect it will go on for a long time. I hope it doesn't for everyone's sake but I really do suspect that although there has been some success in the bombing it has not been as successful as its supporters would have wished and we are in for the long haul and that is a matter of great regret. HUMPHRYS: Mr Kilfoyle, how do you respond to that, Jack Straw saying indefinitely? - perhaps indefinitely. KILFOYLE: I'm very confused by some of the statements from Jack Straw because on Friday he wrote an article in which he said you had to bomb in order to reconstruct. I think there's a real confusion creeping in to the government in terms of its war aims and objectives. But I do take the point made several times by previous people on the programme here today, who said that the greater objective is a campaign against terrorism to eradicate terrorism. And the longer this bombing goes on in the way in which it does, and let's remember that there's nothing tangible left to bomb, all we do is we create more terrorists, we don't diminish the chances of terrorism. HUMPHRYS: You, along with most of your colleagues, the vast majority of your colleagues signed up to this campaign, right at the very beginning, is there a sense in which you feel perhaps you've been misled? KILFOYLE: Can I correct you there John because we didn't sign up to this campaign. There hasn't been a vote, what we did is that we deferred to the privileged information which the Prime Minister had. Personally, I made the point that it ought to be considered, it ought to be focused and it ought to be proportionate, the response that was taken and increasingly I find that that is not the case. I don't necessarily point the finger at Tony Blair or our government on this because I get increasingly the impression that we are along for the ride and decisions are being made by people with other agendas far away in Washington. HUMPHRYS: So what, in that sense we are just doing what Washington tells us in effect, is what you are saying? KILFOYLE: Well I think effectively this is an American war. I think that our active engagements, I think you pointed out two Tomahawk missiles so far in air refuelling. I think it's been extremely useful in terms of the presentation of it being more than American reaction and many would argue it's perfectly understandable given the terrible events of September 11, that the Americans should take this view, but I believe that the decisions are made in Washington and nowhere else. HUMPHRYS: And do you believe that makes us a greater target unnecessarily perhaps? KILFOYLE: I think it certainly drags us in in ways in which we might not wish to be dragged in if we considered this a little more deeply and the ramifications throughout the rest of the Muslim world and beyond. HUMPHRYS: Let me put those points to you Mr George. Do you think that this is, as Mr Kilfoyle was saying, an effectively an American campaign and we've been kind of pushed into it really. We've just done what they want us to do and that adds to the risks for us, for the British people? GEORGE: I think the risk would be very high anyway, if we had done what a number of other countries had done and that is, kept their heads down. The fact the Prime Minister offered British support very very quickly, while President Bush was still flying around the United States, brought his way into, morally, into the decision-making process, and I believe the experience of the United Kingdom and of the Prime Minister, is, and has been, and will be of enormous restraining influence upon the United States and I think we do have to support those in the US administration who are not of the hawkish hue and people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and I believe that these are the people who Prime Minister Blair is giving a great deal of support to. HUMPHRYS: You say a restraining influence, some people might say it's quite hard to see that restraint, particularly if the Americans are using Cluster bombs. GEORGE: Well, Cluster bombs are designed primarily to destroy heavy armour and light vehicles and I suspect these are not being used as extensively as is being said. One of the problems with the campaign is that every programme and every newspaper, I'm not blaming you John, although I read your article today, we're all amateur Wellingtons and Clausewitzs and we don't have all the information and therefore all one can do is to pontificate, but one hopes that the strategy that has been devised and has been agreed is going to yield success, but one thing that really frustrates me and I must say, angers me, is that many of the people who are opposing the US and secondarily, the UK government's position, are not presenting any realistic alternative and as you yourself said this morning, well what else could one do? There had to be a response, and I'm afraid the military strategy has not yet appeared to meet the aspirations, but those people who say no, we shouldn't be doing this, and you've all sorts of arguments as to why we shouldn't be doing it I'm afraid have not come up with anything remotely that would yield the results that we want. HUMPHRYS: Let me ask someone who says the bombing should stop, that very question, Mr. Kilfoyle, what is your alternative? KILFOYLE: Well I think it's an easy response, certainly I don't mean in Bruce's case, but in terms of those in government to throw the onus on other people. The original criteria stand that the response should have been considered, focused and proportionate. HUMPHRYS: What though, what? KILFOYLE: If it was considered, let's be honest here John, the amount of time that was taken before action was taken, was literally the amount of time it took to get the logistics into place, including the fuel and the carriers in the Arabian Sea. The reality of that suggests that it wasn't necessarily considered and by considered I mean, all of the ramifications thought through. I understand how America must have felt and Americans must have felt after September 11, in wanting some reaction, but the stated aim was the apprehension of Osama Bin Laden and the destruction of the Al-Qaeda network. There was not mention made at that time of the kind of bombing which has been going on for three weeks. There was certainly no mention as Sir Michael Boyce has said, that this war may be prosecuting for four years and there was certainly, as far as we were concerned in the British parliament, no mention of those clarion calls from the Pentagon for this war to be extended into other Arab and Muslim countries. HUMPHRYS: Peter Kilfoyle, Bruce George, thank you both very much indeed.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.