Exclusive WSN Interview with Dr. Liam Fox, UK Shadow Secretary of State for Defence:"The best approach to Iran is to give them no comfort."

Posted in Other | 25-May-06

Benedikt Franke and Ben Welch with Dr. Liam Fox: "I do not want defence policy to fall as an European…
Benedikt Franke and Ben Welch with Dr. Liam Fox: "I do not want defence policy to fall as an European competence"
WSN: Dr. Fox, given the recent Cabinet reshuffle we were hoping that you might give us your opinion on the appointment of Des Browne? How do you think his management style will differ from his predecessor and what major challenges do you think he will face over the coming months?

Dr. Liam Fox: He’s a Treasury man, and in recent times was in control of limiting budgets, including the defence budget, so we will see whether he is a sinner who repents or not. There will be a view that he has been sent there to control the MOD budget as part of Treasury control. I’m not entirely sure if that is true or not. His style will differ from his predecessor, not least because he doesn’t have any experience of either foreign or defence policy, and John Reid was much more of a ‘hands on’ manager, so we will see how that goes. In any case, foreign policy in this country is increasingly managed by Downing Street, and defence policy follows along. The problem is that the commitments that our Armed Forces are being asked to fulfil now seem to come from a totally ad hoc policy by Tony Blair, which I believe is more designed to suit the requirements of the last summit communiqué than any strategic overview for Britain’s defence and security. So we will see what happens, but he is going to have a lot on his plate with Iraq, the deployment in Afghanistan, and potential problems with arms coming in from Iran, insurgents being trained by Iranians and with weapons possibly being fired from Iranian soil. These are all big headaches.

WSN: Dr. Fox, you were quoted as saying “By the time we finish the new Wembley Stadium we will be able to seat the ranks of the whole of the British Army inside it. The entire Royal Navy will be smaller than the task force we sent to the Falklands and the RAF Museum at Hendon will have more attack aircraft than the RAF does now”. Could you please elaborate on this quote, especially on how the Conservative Party would go about reversing this trend.

Dr. Liam Fox: What I actually said was that the Navy is now smaller than the French navy. However, under the Blair Government we have seen the Army reduced by 10,000, the Navy by 9,000 and the RAF by 15,000, all at a time when our commitments have increased – Sierra Leone, we are still in Northern Ireland, we are still in the Falklands and we have had the Balkans, Iraq and now Afghanistan. This is leading to a huge overstretch among our forces, with the average tour gap falling from twenty four months to twenty one months and sometimes as low as ten months. That in itself puts a strain on morale and on the welfare of our service families where we are seeing a rise in the divorce rate, especially in the Army. These are very negative trends. What would we do? First of all, we are already beginning to conduct a foreign and defence review that looks at what we believe our strategic interests are as a country. I know that returning to what’s regarded as the ‘national interest’ is a somewhat unfashionable concept amongst some politicians, but we intend to look at what we think needs to be done in terms of the protection of our borders and also attempts at protecting our economic and strategic interests abroad. That really does require a systematic view of where you think the world is going and means looking at the structures we have at the present time and seeing whether they are adequate. Next week I am giving a speech on energy security and the vulnerability of the international economy, questioning whether the political and defence structures that we have at the present time are designed to suit a very interdependent and complex global economy. We have begun that work, ultimately we will have to face up to the question of whether we increase our commitments, and increase our armed forces to match our level of commitments, or whether we reduce our commitments to match the level of our Armed Forces. That’s a very big question that’s too early in our process yet to answer.

WSN: Dr. Fox, we were hoping that you could give us your opinion on the procurement issues raised by the November 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy White Paper. In particular, do you feel that the expression of a need for increased interoperability with American armed forces is accurate? Do you think that the Paper will prove an effective tool for Britain’s future security?

Dr Liam Fox: I welcome the fact that we have got a Defence Industrial Strategy, at least it’s a change and I welcome the fact that the Government seem to have repaired some of the dreadful relations they had with our defence businesses. However, without the appropriate Treasury funding for it, the DIS becomes a glossy, if impressive, wish list. It was also notable within it that there was not a single mention of the biggest defence procurement project of all, the replacement of our nuclear deterrent. To be looking a decade or more ahead, as it claims to do, without even alluding to the decision about the deterrent seems to me to be an attempt to evade responsibility. Do I think that defence co-operation with the United States, in terms of procurements, is important? Yes. There is no project that better symbolises that than the Joint Strike Fighter. I have now made four trips this year to the United States to convince American politicians about the need for the JSF to succeed, including giving evidence to the Senate Armed Services hearing on the JSF. I thought that was important for a number of reasons. First of all it was good to show solidarity with our own Government in an area where there is bi-partisan agreement. Secondly, for the sake of the Conservative Party I think that doing is always better than talking, and for our American friends should understand that if the British Conservative Party, probably the most pro-American party in the whole of Europe, has anxieties about this project then they are probably represented across the whole of the political spectrum. My reservations fell into three areas. One, we needed to get the defence technology transfer to make sure that we didn’t lose sovereign capability. The idea that when we had extensive defence technology transfer relating to our nuclear deterrent, that we couldn’t be trusted with the details on how to change the wheel on the JSF is preposterous. It is essential that we are able to maintain and modify the JSF according to our needs because if we don’t have that transfer we are not a partner, we are a supplicant, and that is a very different relationship. The second thing, of course, is that we require the aircraft carrier variant to enable us to use the JSF with our two new carriers, that’s assuming the current government ever decide to build them. The third issue was over the second engine variant, and whether that should be Rolls Royce or not. In terms of defence, the first two are by far the more important. But it is also important for Americans to realise that this is not simply a question of money, this is a strategic question. It is about locking the United Kingdom in with them into what may well be the last great man-fighter project. The other side of the coin is that if Britain is forced into a “marinised” version of Typhoon as the alternative, it pushes Britain closer into a European procurement process. This can only bring a smile to the face of people like Jacques Chirac, which I am sure is the last thing that the current administration in America wants to do.

"I still believe that the intervention in Iraq was justified"
"I still believe that the intervention in Iraq was justified"
WSN: Dr. Fox, on a related but more international note, you have been very sceptical of EU defence and security cooperation stating that it is bound to undermine NATO as well as UK relations with the US. Could you please elaborate on this scepticism and your proposed solutions.

Dr. Liam Fox: I don’t mind there being an EU pillar of NATO; there you have sovereign governments working together. But those sovereign governments are always answerable to their electorate. The European Commission are not answerable to anybody, and therefore I do not want defence policy to fall as an EU competence. I want Britain to be able to co-operate with our partners, whether in NATO or the European Union, for it’s in our mutual interest to do so, but to be able to act separately when our national interests require it. That does not mean subsuming ourselves in an EU controlled defence project. In fact I would go further. I think that the EDA is a precursor to a European procurement programme which is, in itself, destined to become a European defence force. I think that it is not wise for the United Kingdom to be co-operating or funding that.

WSN: Dr. Fox, given the focus of the last two questions, we were hoping that you might be able to state your views on the continuing importance, or otherwise, of the ‘special relationship’ for British defence policy?

Dr. Liam Fox: I think that there are two possible views of the United States. Either you see the United States as a force for good and want it to be a partner to be able to influence it. Alternatively, you take the French view, a multi-polar view of the world in which America is a competitor which requires counter-balancing by the development of other power structures in the world. I think the latter is a recipe for disaster. An isolationist America, forced to look inwards, will have a very deleterious effect internationally. I think that the more that America can be engaged to get American politicians to understand that they should work in alliances and that they need friends is the correct way to go. That means that we are involved on an operational level and a procurement level. I think that we must be very careful of siren voices in Europe that would pull us away from the United States but who, to put it very mildly, have not shown the slightest likelihood of willingness to tolerate the defence burden that we would have to shoulder were the United States to become distanced from us. Whether in fact they actually have any commitment to the levels of defence we currently have I think is questionable.

WSN: Dr. Fox, given the tragic loss of lives in Basra a few days ago, the discussions about UK involvement in Iraq have flared up again. Could you please state your view of the current situation and possible strategies to overcome the associated challenges.

Dr. Liam Fox: I still believe that the intervention in Iraq was justified because it has to be a good thing that the Iraqi people are free from the tyranny of the Saddam Hussein regime. It has to be right that they are able to develop a body of law and it has to be right that they can develop their own constitution designed by themselves for themselves. I do think that Tony Blair misled us by distorting the evidence that was available on WMD. A number of mistakes have been made. It was always bound to be the case that winning the war would be relatively east given the overwhelming superiority we had in firepower. The difficult bit was always going to be the reconstruction. The mistakes made were that there was an under deployment at the outset, against the advice of the American military. That has led us to a situation where our involvement in Iraq may be more difficult and more prolonged than it would otherwise have been. Secondly, it was a mistake to disband the Iraqi army and police structures because I think it created a security vacuum into which the insurgency was drawn. That’s the backdrop and I think it means that we are in less than advantageous territory than we might otherwise be in. As for what happened in Basra, we have to take seriously reports that the British Army’s footprint in Basra is now so small that we are effectively visitors to the city rather than in control of it. Of course, as we discovered in Northern Ireland, if you can’t control the ground you are much less able to provide security for those in the air. In Northern Ireland we made sure that terrorists could not simply walk into the open and fire an RPG at a helicopter, yet that seems to be exactly what has happened in Iraq. We need the new Secretary of State to have a full review of whether what is happening on the ground in Basra gives us the level of control we need to guarantee the security of our troops. In the wider picture, a lot will depend on the speed and ability of the government of Iraq to develop their own security infrastructure. They are making good progress with the army and perhaps to a lesser extent with the police, but they are certainly a long way from being able to maintain order themselves. That means that we are going to have to be there for some time I think.

WSN: Dr. Fox, with regard to Operation Enduring Freedom you stated that the conflicting roles of reconstruction and counter-narcotics work will inevitably place our service personnel in greater danger. Would you be prepared to elaborate on this point?

Dr. Liam Fox: I don’t think that the conflict is at Operation Enduring Freedom level, I think it’s quite clear that it’s counter-terrorist in terms of what it intends to do. I think that there’s more of a conflict under the NATO deployment because you have got on one hand a mission that is about applying the remit of Kabul to the whole country. Now, there has never been a very strong remit of Kabul and the whole of Afghanistan anyway so we are going to be interfering in a political process as outsiders. At the same time, we are told that we will be there providing security for the Afghan government’s anti-narcotic efforts but we already know that the Taleban have been, if not actually encouraging the growing of poppies, that they have been providing the security for poppy growers. It seems to me that if we try to become involved in the anti-narcotics then we are likely to drive people into the arms of the Taleban, which is exactly opposite to the aims of the OEF. We need to think very carefully about that, and whether the two aims of building a civic society and countering narcotics should not be sequential aims, rather than operating in parallel. With tension rising over Iran, one of the low cost ways of Iran hitting back at the West would be to see the sort of insurgents that are crossing the border into Southern Iraq doing the same into Southern Afghanistan. Sadly, that means that it is the British troops who are most likely to carry the cost of that.

"We are already beginning to conduct a defence review"
"We are already beginning to conduct a defence review"
WSN: Dr. Fox, you have repeatedly mentioned Iran. Naturally, the situation there inspires concern, but how concerned does one really have to be? What do you believe to be the best response to Iran’s rogue behaviour and what is the Conservative Party’s view on the matter?

Dr. Liam Fox: The best approach to Iran is to give them no comfort and to make them understand that nothing has been ruled out in terms of a response to what they are doing. They are clearly flouting international opinion now, and rather than reducing uranium enrichment, which they were asked to do, they have actually increased it. Politically I think they play quite an astute game. They have understood that there is division in the Security Council, and therefore that sanctions are relatively difficult to achieve. The last night of the discussions is testament to that. I think that they understand that in America they will be playing this diplomatic game out against a drop in public support for the intervention in Iraq, and therefore by extension in Iran, right through the mid-term elections. They have a sophisticated foreign ministry who seem to be using it to the maximum. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they are beating us diplomatically, but I certainly think that they understand the concept of divide and rule when it comes to dealing with Western powers. We should be concerned. If threat equals intent plus capability they have made it very clear, certainly the President has, that Israel should be wiped off the map. His intent is clear. The question is, at which point in their drive toward the capability should Iran be stopped.

WSN: Dr. Fox, can you see the need for an involvement of British Armed Forces in the proposed EU mission to support the coming elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Dr. Liam Fox: Congo is the forgotten war, a forgotten conflict. If we are able to make a contribution to the establishment of a stable democracy then that is a good thing. Whether the British forces at the present time, given their overstretch everywhere else, will be able to do that is a very big question. It’s one of the issues which will have to be at the top of the inbox for the new Secretary of State and he has to be fully convinced that any troops that we send, as part of a wider mission like that, will not further exacerbate the problems we have because of the cuts in our armed forces at the same time as we have increased their overseas commitments. I think that in terms of political opinion in the United Kingdom it would be hard to argue for further commitments given that we are spending only 2.2 % of our GDP on defence this year. This is the smallest proportion of our national income that we have contributed to the defence of our country since 1930.

WSN: Dr. Fox, the various wars and humanitarian catastrophes in Africa and especially in Sudan and Chad have raged on for a long time. Can you see a role for British forces in their eventual mitigation and what do you think about the AU’s plans to establish an African Standby Force on order to deal with conflict on the continent.

Dr. Liam Fox: I think this is a fundamental foreign policy question rather than a defence question. It is one of those classical cases where defence follows on behind. The question is what do we do when confronted with the concept of genocide. That’s a fairly simple question to answer when its state suppression of minorities where it’s coming in on the side of the minority to protect them. It’s much more difficult in a civil war and it’s even more difficult when you’ve got tribal conflict. You can only have peacekeeping forces if there’s a peace to keep and if people want you to be there. I think that it is a difficult debate that we are looking at as a part of our review of our own policy. What should be the moral stance in terms of protecting the weak against the strong and weighing that against what we are capable of doing in reality. There will be some circumstances when even if we want to get involved, we won’t be capable of doing it. It will involve taking a realistic approach to just how much we can help people if we think that is the best thing to do. We are looking at that as part of our wider defence and security role