If you were a Kurd, perched on a mountain hillside, with ailing or dead parents, and suffering children, would you thank Mr Bush? I use his name generically for the British and Americans, and those Arabs who were swept along by us – initially, at any rate, against their better judgment – into a shooting war. The question is rhetorical. You would feel the kind of anger that the Jews felt as they risked their lives to get to Palestine on unseaworthy tubs zig-zagging towards Haifa in the late Forties.
If you were a Shiite with your Rome-equivalent, once beautiful Kerbala, irretrievably injured, and your Oxford-equivalent, Najaf, flattened in parts, and your family decimated in circumstances of horrendous civil war, would you thank Bush? If you were a citizen of Baghdad, in 1989 judged the most healthy city in the Middle East, now experiencing cool spring turn into scorching summer, collecting Tigris water full of human excrement, surrounded by open sewers, and vulnerable to cholera and typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery and a host of other diseases, would you thank Bush?
If you lived virtually anywhere in Iraq, and had been subject to unprecedented bombing, which turned out to have been derisorily inaccurate, and you had believed that for eight long years you were the shield of the civilised world against the onslaught of militant Islam in the shape of the Ayatollah Khomeini, would you thank Bush? Hard-nosed Westerners, secure in their own legalisms and culture, might loftily observe that all these categories of Iraqi brought their misfortunes on themselves, that their ghastly situation served them right. But why in that case were the watching millions of the Western world being told that there was ‘no quarrel with the Iraqi people’?
There are others who by no stretch of the imagination deserve the woeful fate that has now befallen them. The dilemma of the Palestinians was epitomised by a remark made to my Parliamentary friend and colleague, George Galloway, by a Palestinian scholar from the West Bank. ‘We Palestinians have seen many ships, all of which passed by in the opposite direction. Then one ship came in our direction, halted and took us on board. That ship was the Saddam Hussein. Was the first thing we should have done to question the captain about his human rights credentials?’ Were you a Palestinian, would you thank Mr Bush? If you were an Indian or Pakistani contract worker, or a Sri Lankan servant girl, injured during the increasingly indefensible bombing of the convoy on the Basra road, and there on account of trying to help your family in Karachi, Calcutta or Columbo eke out an existence, would you thank Mr Bush? If you were a citizen of Bahrain, dreading the appearance of an oil slick, and resigned to disaster for traditional fishing (let alone pearl-diving), would you thank Mr Bush? If you lived on the coast of Iran, and were told that the coral atolls, so important to the fish larvae, were facing devastation, and that harvests from the sea, on which you and your community depended, wouldn’t be the same for very many years, would you thank Mr Bush? If you were from as far away as Eastern Turkey, Yemen or, heaven help us, Kashmir, where snows are reported as being two inches thick in soot from Kuwaiti fires, and subject to sinister, black, oily acid-rain deposits, would you thank Bush?
Even if you were a Kuwaiti, might you not agree with those of us who spent the autumn warning that Kuwait would not be so much liberated as obliterated? If you had any alternative, would you want to raise your family in a society which has been polarised between those who were able to flee and have since returned, and those who stayed during an occupation which became increasingly brutal (in the first months, it now transpires, it was nothing like as brutal as portrayed) with the approach and onset of war. If you had any alternatives, would you wish to bring up a family in conditions where hydrogen sulphide pollution and horrible combinations of chlorine and hydrocarbons were prevalent? You might not thank Bush. If you were a soldier of the British or American Army posted anywhere in the area, but particularly on the Kuwaiti-Iraq border (which is still disputed), and subject to carcinogenic agents, might not your mind stray to the campaign being conducted by Bob Clay MP for compensation for those who participated all those years ago in the Pacific nuclear tests? Ought young men and women from Britain, or any other country, to be sent to areas where sojourn could affect their health for the rest of their lives, and indeed life expectancy itself. This is a fundamental question that deserves a considered answer.
Where does the blame for this human and ecological catastrophe reside? Certainly, in part, with Saddam Hussein, but, in my opinion, only in part. For a long time we were happy enough to supply him with arms, not only for profit and jobs, but as a shield against Iran. It was therefore not silly to advocate throughout the autumn, as the ‘anti-war’ school, that we should continue to talk to him. If we can deal cosily with Assad in Damascus, we could have dealt with Baghdad. In part, the blame lies with the State Department: bluntly, it was foolhardy to send a woman as ambassador to an Arab country. April Glaspie mixed up the signals and passed the buck by being too polite. In part, with the White House, who, it emerges, were aware of April Glaspie’s report and did nothing. In part, the blame lies with Mrs Thatcher, who, at Aspen Colorado, in early August, goaded a cautious Bush into a military response. George, don’t be a wimp, be a man!
It is only a matter of time before ‘The Causes of the Gulf War’ replaces ‘The Causes of the First World War’ as a favourite exam question. Meanwhile anyone addressing themselves to the origins of the Gulf War would do well to cast a beady eye on the House of Commons. When there are differences between the two main parties of the day, the British adversarial system functions – after a fashion. Depending on the effectiveness or otherwise of Front Bench spokesmen, there is some kind of scrutiny of government performance – as, for example, John Prescott has recently shown in transport, and Robin Cook in health. When both Front Benches are agreed on central issues, meaningful debate is difficult, bordering on the unachievable.
Worse still, it may be difficult to get a debate at all. It was a disgrace that despite many requests from uncomfortable MPs for the recall of Parliament in those decisive weeks of August after Saddam Hussein’s army had gone into Kuwait, the House of Commons didn’t finally meet until 6–7 September. And even then all we had was a truncated debate, in which may of us who had been voicing increasingly shrill doubts since the strike Tornados were posted to the Gulf went uncalled.
The Gulf War dominated the media and the thoughts of the world: but it was never more than spasmodically debated in the House of Commons.