By Harry Phibbs
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The Times this morning reports(£) that at a meeting of Conservative MPs this week, David Cameron asked them to consider what Margaret Thatcher would have done over Syria.
The report says his comment was "gauche" and prompted a "collective wince." But I think it is a interesting and useful question. That is not to suggest that we can be certain what she would think. Or that if we could we should automatically concur. However, it might help to clarify our own judgment.
Lady Thatcher's book Statecraft, published in 2002, offered a warning of what we might have to contend with:
"US and Israeli officials are reported to have confirmed that Syria is continuing to build chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. The programme was begun by the late president in order to counter Israel's superiority in conventional weapons, which has greatly increased in recent years.
"Syria began producing a Sarin-gas-based warhead in the mid-1980s, and it has since been pressing ahead with acquiring and building ever-longer-range Scud missiles to carry them. It has apparently now developing a Scud with a seven-hundred-kilometre range, which could hit Israel from a point much deeper in Syrian territory, making the launchers more difficult to locate and hit.
"By acting in this fashion, Syria is sharply upgrading the threat it poses to our own broader security interests, and it must be made to understand that this cannot and will not continue."
She added that Syria "has a very unpleasant regime, even if that unpleasantness is directed more against Muslims than against Westerners". It has "consistently supported terrorist groups determined to destabilise Israel and block peace with the Palestinians".
"Like Iraq, Syria's formal status as a republic has not prevented its evolution into something approaching a hereditary monarchy, or (perhaps better) a tyranny. Just as Saddam is grooming his son to take over, Assad did the same. Current Syrian President Bashar al-Hassad's main training for the job appears to have been aquired as an ophthalmologist, which might in most states be considered somewhat inadequate."
Of course it is not just her comments about Syria which offer a guide Lady Thatcher's approach.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Enoch Powell felt that it was not our affair. Mr Powell said that "Saddam Hussein has a long way to go yet before his troops come storming up the beaches of Kent or Sussex." That "the world is full of evil men engaged in doing evil things. That does not make us policemen to round them up nor judges to find them guilty and to sentence them. What is so special about the ruler of Iraq that we suddenly discover that we are to be his jailers and his judges?"
Edward Heath and Jesse Jackson felt that talking to Saddam Hussein was the answer.
Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister at the earlier stages of the war to liberate Kuwait, took a different view. She felt the cause of freedom and of our national interest were linked. That there was a limit to how long military force could be delayed.
In a speech she said:
"Some of you will have read a letter which appeared in one of our national newspapers the other day. It reminds us that—and I quote—"hundreds of Kuwaitis are being tortured and killed in some of the most horrible ways possible"; and the writer goes on to say—and I quote once more: "every visit by every politician, diplomat or envoy prolongs the agony of those of us under Iraqi occupation—it does not bring the Iraqi regime in Kuwait any nearer to its end".
That letter is from a British citizen trapped in Kuwait.
I have received a letter, too, from the mother of one of the hostages in Iraq in which she tells how he was allowed to telephone her the other day but had only one message: don't negotiate with the terrorists, with Saddam Hussein!
Such, My Lord Mayor, is the tremendous courage of the British people caught up in this appalling situation. We ourselves must not show one ounce less resolve than they do. We hope that sanctions will compel Iraq to withdraw soon but if not, Arab and Western forces will have no alternative but to free Kuwait by military means.
Make no mistake! Free Kuwait we shall! If we fail to act conclusively now, we should only bequeath the problem to future generations, who would indeed have cause to blame us and our hopes for a better world in which law and decency prevail would be destroyed. You cannot allow the sanction of force to remain in the hands of someone who has no moral scruples whatsoever."
Had Lady Thatcher remained Prime Minister a a few weeks longer Saddam Hussein's regime would probably have been toppled, rather than only being forced to withdraw from Kuwait. Her influence over the US was considerable.
As she put it in Statecraft:
"American power and the resolution to apply it won the war – and they could have won the peace to, if excessive concern for international opinion had not prevented America's demanding the complete disarmament of Iraqi forces."
As it was, Saddam was not removed for another 12 years. An unfortunate delay.
We can't know for certain if Margaret Thatcher would have backed military action against the Assad regime. But we can make a pretty good guess.