NS Interview - Jack Straw

The Foreign Secretary is ready to wage war on tyrants, but blames many of the world's problems on Br

Jack Straw has reasons to be cheerful. Dogged diplomacy has paid dividends - for the moment. The United States has not yet gone it alone. The UN Security Council has shown a united front. All eyes are on Saddam Hussein. Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, has won his latest skirmish despite the hawks circling the White House. His stock has risen. So has Straw's. For weeks, the Foreign Secretary has thought about little else but the wording of UN resolution 1441.

Straw has not stopped. On one particular day he took five calls from Powell, two from the French and one from the Mexican foreign ministers, and one from Igor Ivanov, his Russian counterpart. The calls come any time, any place - during his constituency surgery, while putting leaflets through letterboxes, while out campaigning in a local council by-election in Blackburn, and at Buckingham Palace for the Queen's annual shindig with the diplomatic corps.

I ask Straw if now there is going to be war with Iraq. "I hope not. The resolution provides a pathway to a peaceful solution," he says. "It also makes clear military action may be necessary."

With regards to the resolution: "So far, so good," Straw says. "It's a good resolution. Above all, it has the unanimous backing of the international community, which has been critical. And the fact that it was 15 to zero makes the prospects of peace higher, much higher, because it sends out a clear imperative to Saddam. He's realised, I think, that now the game is up."

This is what he calls the Straw paradox. The tougher you are in the UN resolution, the more likely you are to have a peaceful outcome. He denies that the conditions are so tough that Saddam will be caught out whatever he does. "We would not have got this resolution signed up 15 to zero if it was a device with a series of traps in it. I know there are some people who, having campaigned for a resolution, now they've got one wish they hadn't."

But what if Saddam is found to be in breach and, come January, the Americans - with British backing and with or without the others - attack Iraq? "I will feel a great sense of sadness that it has not been possible to resolve this peacefully. But I also think that the future of international law and of greater peace in the world will depend on using force at that stage if it becomes necessary."

What of the other scenario, that Saddam is disarmed peacefully, but stays in place? Would Straw regard that as an optimal result? His initial answer is swift: "Yes. Sure." He stops and seeks to qualify: "I don't regard Saddam Hussein staying in place as optimal, but it is no part of this resolution to change the regime."

So he would be reconciled to Saddam staying in office? "Reconciled is the wrong word. Would I put up with the fact that he is there and that it would be inappropriate to use international assistance to remove him from office if he complies with the resolution? Yes."

That is not the kind of thing the hawks in Washington want to hear. But Straw will not be drawn into criticising the likes of Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, and Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, or comparing their world view with his. "All sorts of people around the world say all sorts of things. If you want to interview people in Washington, go and ask them." He won't even admit that the British government was alarmed by speeches Cheney and Rumsfeld made in the summer, when the hawks seemed on top. "There was an agenda for discussion," he says. "I thought it would come out all right in the wash."

He is fastidious in defending the US president: "Despite the caricature of the American administration, Bush has taken the United States down the multilateral road. The speech he made on 12 September (to the UN General Assembly) was an extremely good speech. I heard it received. You judge people by the decisions they make. The decisions he made before that, such as in respect of Afghanistan, were careful, well thought through, proportionate, and he took the international community with him."

Tony Blair's post-11 September foreign policy is predicated on the need to keep in with the Americans - use what influence we have in private, don't blow it by airing misgivings in public. On one issue, however, differences are barely concealed - the Middle East. As the NS revealed last month, Blair and Bush fell out in the week of the Labour conference over the US administration's refusal to force Ariel Sharon to resume negotiations. Blair made it clear then he wanted final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians to resume by the end of the year. His pleas fell on deaf ears. Straw admits progress will now be hard to achieve before Israeli elections at the end of January. "I'm less optimistic than I was a few weeks ago." In the meantime, he calls for a "new focus on the unlawful settlements. It's important that during this period we send out a message that these will have to be dismantled."

I suggest that for all the tough talk on settlements, the Blair government is perceived as one of the most pro-Israeli in modern times. "I am pro-Israel. I believe in Israel's right to exist. I plead guilty," Straw responds. "I'm also pro-Palestine. I believe in the right of the state of Palestine to exist within secure [UN resolution] 242 borders. And I'm pro the Arab world. So I'm guilty on all charges." Thus, Straw the pragmatist. Perhaps no issue shows the pragmatist side of Straw more than arms sales. Last summer, he defended the decision to allow the sale of spare parts for F16 fighter jets to Israel, even though air strikes against Palestinian suspects is a favoured Israeli military tactic. The Americans deemed the sale essential, so Britain went along with it.

"Defence industries are important to our effectiveness as a military force, and therefore as a diplomatic force. And, I'm afraid, if you sell people military equipment it may be used for the purpose intended. Arms kill people."

After a difficult start, Straw has settled into the job and is clearly relishing it. His relationship with Powell has got going. He has Blair's confidence. So what exactly is his foreign policy? What is the big idea? Straw thinks about it and offers the following: "Democratic socialist, number one. Engaged. Active. Trying to secure a more peaceful and prosperous world, and one that is founded on, rooted in, our commitment to the UN and international law."

That doesn't sound quite as snappy as Cook's grand proclamations back in 1997 of an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy. What's happened to that, I ask? He laughs. "We each choose our own words, right? I've given you my own words."

And what of another more recent mantra devised by a former foreign policy adviser to Blair, Robert Cooper: "liberal imperialism" in which western powers would be able to impose their more enlightened view on old-fashioned states?

"I didn't agree with that stuff. I'm not a liberal imperialist," Straw says. "There's quite a lot wrong with liberalism, with a capital L, although I am a liberal with a small L. And there's a lot wrong with imperialism. A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now, I have to deal with now, are a consequence of our colonial past."

Straw is pumped up, and embarks on a list of British historical errors. "India, Pakistan - we made some quite serious mistakes. We were complacent with what happened in Kashmir, the boundaries weren't published until two days after independence. Bad story for us, the consequences are still there. Afghanistan - where we played less than a glorious role over a century and a half." He moves on to the Middle East: "There's hardly a country . . . " he checks himself, before going on: "The odd lines for Iraq's borders were drawn by Brits. The Balfour declaration and the contradictory assurances which were being given to Palestinians in private at the same time as they were being given to the Israelis - again, an interesting history for us but not an entirely honourable one." Then he gets to Africa. His "huge arguments" with Robert Mugabe are about democracy and good governance. "However, when any Zimbabwean, any African, says to me land is a key issue . . . the early colonisers were all about taking land."

So this is not a case of imperial values in a modern setting. It's not about spreading the gospel of western democracy. It's about a strict adherence to the UN. Straw even has a copy of its charter in his pocket, which he is happy to recite.

I remind Straw, by way of conclusion, that Blair has committed Britain to four military interventions in only five years: the first air strikes on Iraq in 1998, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan; and now, perhaps, Iraq again - a fifth. "In each case, there's been a very good reason for military action," he says. "We have to raise the game against tyranny in the world."

This article first appeared in the 18 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, NS Interview - Jack Straw