Andrew Gimson

Hoon: we have to find those weapons

The Defence Secretary tells Andrew Gimson that WMD remain the legal basis for the war against Iraq

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We could go and invade some country none of us has yet thought of and destroy the regime there while leaving the rest of the country intact. That is not quite how Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, put it when I interviewed him on Monday afternoon in the presence of three members of his staff, but it emerges clearly from what he said. Mr Hoon sees a world in which warfare has changed far more profoundly than most opponents of the Iraq campaign have yet understood, and in which amazing possibilities have opened up.

Question to Mr Hoon: 'Can you reassure us that we won't be taking part in any action against Syria or Iran?'

Mr Hoon: 'Well I, er [slight laugh, suggesting he finds the question implausible], I'm not quite sure where these stories have come from, but I certainly have had no part in any planning or preparation for military action in relation to Syria or Iran.'

Question: 'That slightly begs the question of what planning you have taken part in.'

Mr Hoon: 'Well, for the moment at any rate I have had no part in any military preparations or planning for any conflict anywhere in the world. That is not to say that problems will not arise in the way that they did in relation to Afghanistan, for example, but as of today I am sure that I and other members of this department are looking for a period of calm and quiet reflection [general laughter].'

Question: 'For how long?'

An official [amid further laughter]: 'Indefinitely.'

Mr Hoon: 'I think we've got to get things back to an even keel as far as the department is concerned, but, er, this department, as I have learnt in three and a half years, is driven by events. It's not driven by the wishes of the secretary of state or of its senior officials. We have to react to the events that take place in the world, and if you had said to me on 10 September that substantial numbers of British forces would be deployed to Afghanistan, I think I might have had a reasonable argument with you, but, as it was, after 11 September 2001 there we were planning for military operations in Afghanistan.'

Question: 'But just because these unexpected things have happened, I suppose it makes it more thinkable that other unexpected things will happen?'

Mr Hoon: 'Well, I think that's fair. I do think that's a reasonable point, that the key lesson we learnt after 11 September 2001 is that one or two at any rate of the assumptions that underpin the Strategic Defence Review had to be reconsidered. The idea that essentially our operations would be conducted in Europe or the Middle East, which was one of the key assumptions underpinning the SDR, I don't think is any longer the case, and having to move ...people and equipment from the UK to Afghanistan was a serious challenge, one that we were able to satisfy, but nevertheless there were not too many other countries in the world that could do that.'

The language is bureaucratic, but Mr Hoon keeps every option open. The impression he gives of being a narrow and unimaginative man is misleading. So is his portrait of himself as a man entirely at the mercy of events. Like the Prime Minister, and like any able politician, he can see the opportunities presented by events, and the justifications which can be derived from them.

Not that the word 'vision' seems to go with Mr Hoon. Perhaps 'outlook' would be better. Again and again, his tenacious capacity for sticking to the letter of the law obscures what the government is really doing. Anyone can see that we did not invade Iraq simply in order to remove the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, but it does not suit Mr Hoon to go into any of the other possible justifications for the campaign.

Question: 'Is it essential to find these famous weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the war?'

Mr Hoon: 'Well, that was the reason we gave, which I stand by, for taking military action against Saddam Hussein's regime. We're confident that weapons of mass destruction are there. We now have to find them.'

Question: 'You seem to be rather throwing away all sorts of other very good reasons for the war, such as getting rid of a most vicious and horrible tyrant.'

Mr Hoon: 'Bear in mind that we also committed ourselves to stay within international law as we interpreted it in the United Kingdom, and the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction was the reason for taking action.'

Mr Hoon pointed out that a 'very, very determined effort' had been made to hide the weapons of mass destruction by moving them around: 'We're not talking about hiding needles in haystacks, we're talking about moving the haystacks.' But he agreed that the members of the Iraqi regime who have surrendered should be able to help locate these haystacks: 'I think it's fair to say that the people who are now assisting us with our inquiries – that's the standard police phrase, isn't it? – are proving co-operative.'

Once the weapons are found, he wants 'an independent element' in their verification, which could be provided by the United Nations, but 'could equally be another country not involved in the coalition who has the appropriate facilities, which particularly means the availability of appropriately registered laboratories to do the work.... There are countries with that kind of capability who, I am sure, would be willing to help. Some Scandinavian countries come to mind, for example.'

Naturally, neither France nor Germany comes to mind. When asked where the Iraq campaign leaves European defence plans, Mr Hoon says, 'Where we were before. We need to see improvements in European military capabilities.' This preposterously technocratic reply excludes the evident fact that the will, not just the capability, was missing in Europe, and without a common will surely a common defence policy is impossible.

Mr Hoon stuck as ever to his guns, defending his position with a series of splendidly drab phrases: 'If you'll forgive me, I think you're turning a specific into a generalisation.... I would clearly have preferred all the European countries to work together on delivering military capability into Iraq. That was not the case. I was deeply disappointed, but I'm not sure you could necessarily say that the will will always be lacking. What is lacking are key military capabilities.'

But with sturdy patriotism he agreed that it would be quite out of the question ever to have a European defence policy which removed our sovereign right to decide whether or not to commit our troops. And when I put it to him that many older Germans were against the war because of the experience of having been bombed, Mr Hoon came back as any robust British defence minister, Conservative or Labour, might have done: 'Yes, well, plenty of people in the United Kingdom had the experience of being bombed in the second world war.'

This led him into a telling description of how the world has changed: 'When people talk about bombing, they certainly think about the second world war; they think about Dresden, Coventry and London for that matter.... The truth is that modern bombing – and by bombing I mean 2003, not even necessarily 2001 and certainly not 1991 – has moved on to a remarkable extent. Around a tenth of the bombs were dropped in Iraq this time compared to 1991, and they were dropped with absolutely remarkable accuracy....

'The word that was used by those responsible was "craft", and that's a rather curious word; when I first heard it I thought, that's a slightly odd word to use, but they were crafting a campaign. Now those responsible in Bomber Command in the second world war couldn't have crafted a campaign against Hitler and the regime in Germany. All they could do was drop large amounts of bombs on big cities, on industrial facilities, and hope that some of those bombs got thro ugh. This time we were able to target particular buildings – I've seen the Baath party HQ in Basra, I've a photograph of it somewhere, it was hit absolutely precisely, and that's a remarkable transformation....

'The world has changed ...and I think it is important because it does mean that the military operations are far more precise; the implications for non-combatants, or even in this case sometimes for the Iraqi army, are quite different. You can aim a bomb precisely at the people who are responsible on the other side. That is a very different kind of military operation from the ones we've had to conduct in the past. I'm not sure it's always quite got across. People talk about this, but they don't really quite accept it. It was happening in Afghanistan, it was happening to a lesser extent in Kosovo, but each of these conflicts, as the technology has moved on, has produced ever more accurate bombing.'

Question: 'So Bomber Harris would have been able to make a better job of it?'

Mr Hoon: 'Well, he would have had different tools available; he would have been able to conduct his campaign in quite a different way.'

Here is a highly alarming thought for any dictator who picks a fight with us, if 'us' is understood to include the Americans: the dictator and his henchmen can be obliterated while his country remains virtually unscathed.

As I rose to leave, Mr Hoon drew my attention to the squat model of a missile on the chimneypiece in his room: 'It's pretty ugly, but this thing flies several hundred miles and hits a bunker and makes a mess of it.' Mr Hoon chuckled.