BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.11.02

Interview: GEOFF HOON MP, Defence Secretary.

Is a war with Iraq now inevitable.

ANDREW RAWNSLEY: Senior officials and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic believe that military action against Iraq is increasingly inevitable. This week the Americans will add more forces to the large number they already have in the Gulf and it's widely reported today that Britain will very shortly begin mobilising its forces. President Bush didn't get everything he wanted from the United Nations when the Security Council passed its resolution on Friday. Resolution 1441 does include tough new conditions for weapons inspections. But if Saddam frustrates the inspectors, there's no automatic trigger for war. The French, the Russians and the Chinese continue to insist that another resolution must be passed before any punitive action against Iraq can be launched. The words of the resolution are sufficiently fudged that the White House can say that they will go to war if Saddam Hussein impedes the inspectors of his arsenal. A war they will declare whatever the views of other members of the UN Security Council. And if that happens, it will finally confront our Government with the choice they've been desperate to avoid - do they stick with UN or follow the US? The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, is with me. Geoff Hoon, okay you've got this resolution from the United Nations, but what possible reason is there to think that Saddam Hussein will co-operate with his own disarmament. GEOFF HOON MP: Because he said that it would. And the pressure from the International Community has been such that a new Security Council resolution was passed, unanimously, fifteen votes, including Syria in favour and clearly the pressure of the International Community is getting to him. RAWNSLEY: But you say that Saddam Hussein says he would. I mean he's a man you've described for months now as a man who breaks his word continually. He's always, on past form, even if he lets the inspectors in, he will simply frustrate them, won't he? HOON: Well that's obviously a concern that we have. But so far, because of the pressure that has been brought to bear through detailed discussions in New York and the United Nations, we do see some progress. It's progress that has been backed up by the threat of force and I make no apology for saying that because clearly that has changed Saddam Hussein's position. RAWNSLEY: But look, for months now, even years, you, Tony Blair, George Bush, you've all described Saddam Hussein as a cunning, wicked, completely untrustworthy man and suddenly this wicked, cunning man, is going to put up his hands, say come in, here are all my weapons, take them away. Beggars belief, I don't think you really believe that do you? HOON: He has a choice. He has the last opportunity that the International Community will give him for exercising that choice, whether he disarms voluntarily as you say, or whether he does face the threat of the use of force. It's a matter for him. It's in his hands, he can decide whether or not there is to be military action. RAWNSLEY: And on all past form, even if he lets the inspectors in, there will come a point where it's obvious he's not showing them all his weapons, won't it. HOON: Well that will be a matter for the inspectors to descide. RAWNSLEY: What's your hunch? That's what's going to happen. HOON: Well this is a very, very tough detailed resolution, it sets out all manner of detail about the kind of inspection that can take place, because having learned our lessons from the past where the inspection regime was less tough, we have been able to block off many of the gaps that he sought to exploit last time, presidential palaces for example, twenty-five square miles of Iraq that the previous inspection regime could not enter, now that's dealt with. So, we will know very quickly, I suspect, from the inspectors whether or not they are being frustrated. RAWNSLEY: We'll now quickly. Well, let's assume and I think this is the assumption we have to work on, I think you and the Americans are working on it, that Saddam isn't willing to disarm voluntarily. In those circumstances, has the United States, now got a mandate for a war? HOON: What the International Community have said and everyone is agreed on this, that there would be a further discussion. But there are a number of stages to be gone through, the inspectors, we hope, will be allowed access freely to Iraq, they will then report on what they find there, that report will go to the Security Council where there will be a further discussion amongst members of the Security Council. Everyone accepts that, the United States included, so we still have a number of stages to go through yet. RAWNSLEY: What does further discussion mean? I mean many people think America hasn't got authorisation for war on Saddam Hussein without a new fresh mandate from the Security Council, is that your view? HOON: I don't think that's necessarily the case no. RAWNSLEY: Not necessarily? HOON: Not necessarily. What we have to see is what happens. I.. clearly there are a number of possibilities that could occur over the next weeks ahead, but what I think is important is that we are all committed to this process, to the implementation of a United Nations Security Council resolution, Kofi Annan has made it clear that it is a matter for the United Nations to take very seriously and clearly as I said to your earlier, it is a choice now before Saddam Hussein. RAWNSLEY: But you see there is a clear difference of opinion here because the way the Americans are talking, they clearly think that's it, they have now got the mandate they need, if they want to take war to him, other people who signed up to this vote on Friday, don't take that view at all, the Syrian Ambassador doesn't think it gives a right to America to take unilateral action, the Russians don't think that, the Chinese doesn't think that, the French don't think that. What do you think? I mean who are you with in this argument - the French and the Russians or the Americans? HOON: Well I've not actually seen any evidence of the United States' position being what you say it is. The President when he spoke the other day, said the United States was absolutely committed to the UN process. They've spent months negotiating this, they've set out their position very clearly. RAWNSLEY: Right, so, if it came to the position where war had to be declared, you and the British Government would be urging the White House to go back and get another resolution would you? HOON: Everyone is agreed, as I said, that we will go back to the Security Council, that there will be further discussion... RAWNSLEY: For a chat, but what about a resolution? HOON: This is not a chat, we are talking about very serious matters here, about whether in fact military action is agreed upon. That's not a matter that will be done casually, it's a matter that will be done as a result of a serious discussion in the Security Council. RAWNSLEY: What if the Americans say no, we are going to have a war, we don't need another resolution, the Russians, the French, the Chinese go bananas at this point, where will Britain be? HOON: Well, again, I think it's important to go through the process. We've committed ourselves to this process, we've committed ourselves after a long period of difficult negotiation. No one pretends that this was straightforward. These are significant members of the International Community deciding on something absolutely fundamental to our security. RAWNSLEY: Something pretty ambiguous, that different people have voted for this resolution, but they can't really agree what it amounts to. HOON: What we need to do is to go through this process, to go to the next stage. We hope to allow weapons inspectors to go and look on the ground freely what Iraq is doing and that is a carefully worked out process. I think it's wrong to belittle it in this way. RAWNSLEY: Ah, well I'm not. Clare Short is very clear, your Cabinet colleague, Clare Short, she says and I'm going to quote her "the Security Council will decide what type of action will be taken", not the Americans alone, not America and Britain, Clare Short says it will be the Security Council. Is she right? HOON: It's always a matter for individual member states as it is for the United Kingdom to determine whether or not force will be used. It is a decision of the British Prime Minister to commit British troops. RAWNSLEY: So Clare Short's wrong? HOON: What I'm saying to you is that before... RAWNSLEY: Well you're saying she's wrong, but you don't want to say it in words of one syllable. HOON: What I'm saying to you is that before any decision is taken about military action, it will be a decision of the British Prime Minister if British troops are involved. RAWNSLEY: So...the impression people have, you see.. although you'll have discussions, the Americans, the British will have discussions with the UN Security Council because that's good public relations, but the impression people have is that if the UN Security Council doesn't fall into line, you'll do it anyway. HOON: Well, Kofi Annan as I've already said, has said that the United Nations Security Council and the United Nations must take its responsibilities seriously and what he is talking about is the responsibility to ensure that its own decisions are properly enforced. RAWNSLEY: But your interpretation of the UN's responsibilities is that they must licence a war by America and Britain. HOON: No, I think... RAWNSLEY: Some other members of the Security Council have a different interpretation of that responsibility. HOON: Well I didn't actually say that at all. I said that - and it will clearly depend on what happens. Iraq has less than a week now in which to decide whether to accept this resolution, it then has within thirty days to decide on what disclosure it's going to make over its existing weapons of mass destruction programmes, whether it has actually a programme on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. We clearly believe that it has, it's a matter for Iraq now to decide whether it faces up to that. After that, we expect to see weapons inspectors returning to Iraq, to be allowed access. Now, all of those events need to take place before we have the kinds of conversations in the Security Council that you are referring to. Clearly, those discussions will be influenced by what happens on the ground. RAWNSLEY: Of course, but one thing you do in the Ministry of Defence probably more than anywhere else in Government is a lot of war gaming. You work out what you are going to do in various scenarios. I mean it's possible the crunch as you say could come within seven days. Saddam Hussein may turn round and say "no weapons inspectors, I'm not having them." When it comes to this crunch, will America and Britain go to war against him without a fresh resolution from the Security Council? That's the crunch question I'm trying to get you to answer, Secretary of State. HOON: As I have been trying to explain, it will depend on the circumstances. How Saddam Hussein reacts... RAWNSLEY: Oh, so, there's some circumstances where you ignore the rest of the Security Council and others where you may go for a mandate. HOON: The Security Council doesn't actually set out its position quite as clearly on what is a speculation, as you are suggesting. There isn't a clear view that you're describing. It will clearly depend on how the weapons inspectors are able to gain access to Iraq, what they find, what kind of report they make to the Security Council and, then, as everyone accepts and it's been stated quite clearly, on the record, that there will have to be a further discussion. RAWNSLEY: But not necessarily a resolution? So I'm going to take that as a yes and put this to you. Don't you think it would be terribly hazardous for the United States to launch any sort of unilateral war against Saddam Hussein? HOON: Well, the United States has not done that. RAWNSLEY: Yet. HOON: The United States has been consistently accused of wanting to do that, yet at every turn, they frustrated their accusers. People said that about Afghanistan, that the United States would hit out, in fact, they carefully assembled an international coalition and proceeded very cautiously with military action. People were saying that the United States would hit out at Iraq. In fact, the President made a decision to go through the UN process, he's carefully negotiated and reached a conclusion and again, there's no evidence of the United States behaving in the way that you suggest. RAWNSLEY: What there is, if there's a war, there is increasing evidence that Britain will be joining the United States in an invasion of Iraq, someone has been briefing today's newspapers that Britain will be mobilising its forces this week. Is that correct? HOON: It's not correct, although I have seen this briefing, so called, on a number of occasions, so I suppose eventually one or another of the newspapers will actually get it right. RAWNSLEY: None of it is coming out of your department at all then? HOON: Certainly not with my knowledge and authority, absolutely not. We made clear, as the Prime Minister did to the House of Commons in September, that we will be prepared. It's absolutely essential that Saddam Hussein realises that the international community is prepared to back its resolution with the use of force. RAWNSLEY: Absolutely, to make the make the threat of punitive action real, of course you are going to have to have considerable forces in the Gulf. How many service men and women in total do you think we will need to commit to the Gulf as a country? HOON; Well, no decisions have been taken. RAWNSLEY; I can't believe that, you must be close to decisions then. HOON; I have to say that no decisions have been taken and the Prime Minister indicated in the House of Commons that we would be prepared, and we are prepared. RAWNSLEY: Can you give us a rough ball park figure... HOON; The issue is when that decision is taken, clearly it is a matter that has to be reported first of all to the House of Commons. And that is a basic constitutional principle. RAWNSLEY: Let me put it this way then, when do you expect to be giving a proper formal announcement about mobilisation, the numbers involved, to the House of Commons? HOON; Well, again, I'm not going to announce that today. What is important is that we are prepared, that we have appropriate contingency plans in place and we will take those decisions when they are needed. RAWNSLEY: You see some say there won't be a big enough force to deal with Saddam until February next year. Which gives him more than three months to muck about with the inspectors. If it's necessary when will we and the United States really be in a position to invade Iraq? HOON; Well I'm not going to those kinds of details on your.... RAWSLEY: Well, are those reports correct, that we won't be ready until February? HOON; Those reports are not correct, no... RAWNSLEY: Will we be ready? HOON; Equally, I'm not going into guessing games,... RAWNSLEY: But not as late as February? HOON; ... when we might be ready. What I'm saying is that we're prepared, at each stage we have taken the appropriate and necessary decisions, but what is important is that we give this UN process time to be effective. RAWNSLEY: You see there are doubts at the very highest levels of the armed forces about Britain's capability to join a war against Saddam. I want to quote the Chief of the Defence Staff himself, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce. He says that front line troops have been stripped out to provide would-be fire-fighters. He goes on to say, if this runs into next year we shall have extreme difficulty. Is he right? HOON; I can assure you that we will be prepared in the event of the Prime Minister deciding to commit British troops. That is something which I discuss on a regular basis with the Chief of the Defence Staff, and we will be ready if it does come to that....and I want to emphasise it's a last resort. RAWNSLEY: So you think we could cope with having lots of forces in the Gulf and a fire-fighters dispute at the same time? HOON: Well, again, we will take those decisions when they're needed. They are not yet needed. RAWNSLEY: It wasn't a question of taking a decision, it was knowing whether we could cope with a fire-fighters strike and action in the Gulf simultaneously. HOON; We will cope, we will cope. RAWNLSEY: The Chief of the Defence Staff,. he's got an office right next door to you, he doesn't think we can cope. HOON: Well, I see him probably rather more often than you. RAWNSLEY: I'm sure you do. But maybe you don't talk to each other. HOON: We have regular conversations. I spoke to him this morning in fact at the Cenotaph, and I assure you that we will be ready, we can cope and we can deal with these eventualities. RAWNSLEY: Did you tell him that comment was helpful? HOON: I have seen that comment and I think you'll find that you're taking it out of context. RAWNSLEY: No, it was very plain what he said. I mean here's the quote again. "If this runs into next year we shall have extreme difficulty" That's not out of context, that's what he said. HOON: He went on to explain that we will be able to manage a number of different commitments, but it clearly does depend on all the circumstances, and again it isn't helpful at this stage to indulge in this kind of speculation. It is speculation. I'm saying to you that in the event of there being a need for military action in relation to enforcing the UN decisions in the Gulf we will be prepared and we will be ready. RAWNSLEY: I assume that when the Cabinet discusses the dispute with the fire-fighters you must be one of those voices hoping the Chancellor will come up with the money. I mean, after all, if Saddam Hussein is the menace to humanity you've described him as what's a few million pounds for the fire-fighters. We have to get our priorities right. I presume that's your advice to the Chancellor is - buy them off. HOON: It's not my advice to the Chancellor. The Ministry of Defence is clearly present at those discussions because it is important that we are able to provide an alternative fire service should there be a strike. Clearly we all hope there is not going to be a strike. We've been very encouraged by the negotiations that have taken place so far. Everyone wants to see those to be successful. RAWNSLEY: It's entirely possible that we could have large numbers of forces in the Gulf. Others may have to be deployed on fire-fighting duties. Is there going to be anyone much available to protect Britain itself from the sort of horrific terrorist attacks that David Blunkett was warning about only the other day? HOON: Yes, there is, and again one of the consequences of the appalling events of September the Eleventh was that I commissioned some work to be done looking at the impact of those new threats on the consequences. And I announced the results of that very recently, is that we have available now some at short notice, reserves who will be able to go and assist the civil authorities in the event of a crisis, but I do want to emphasise that it has always been the case in the United Kingdom that the primary responsibility for managing an attack within the jurisdiction of the UK lies with the Home Office, lies with the civilian authorities. We assist, the Ministry of Defence will assist, but it is assistance to the civilian power. RAWNSLEY: Of course any military action involving Britain in Iraq would be risky, and it's actually an unnecessary risk isn't it. I mean the Americans with their amount of forces at their disposal don't actually need us for this war do they? HOON: I don't accept that for a moment and I would invite you to look at the military action that took place about a year ago in Afghanistan where the UK armed forces played a vital role supplying reconnaissance, providing air to air refuelling, a significant presence on the ground, something that the United States looked for and welcomed from the United Kingdom. RAWNSLEY: Given all we know about Saddam, given how determined the Americans are to deal with him even remove him, be honest with the British people on this Remembrance Sunday Secretary of State. We're heading for war aren't we? HOON: I'm consistently honest about these matters, and particularly on Remembrance Sunday I'm not going to take lightly a decision to deploy British forces in support of a UN Resolution. Nevertheless, if that is necessary, it will be a decision that a British Government will take. RAWNSLEY: Geoff Hoon, thank you. HOON: Thank you.
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.