Robin Cook: Man of integrity?


Robin Cook died on 6 August 2005.  Obituaries to him spoke of his brilliant intellect and of his honesty and integrity.  Unlike most other politicians, we were told, he said what he thought and refused to be party to actions he didn’t believe in.  Most famously, he resigned from the Government in March 2003 because of his opposition to British participation in military action against Iraq.


But does he deserve this reputation for honesty and integrity?  I don’t think so.


In his personal statement to the House of Commons on 17 March 2003 after his resignation, he said:


“For four years as Foreign Secretary I was partly responsible for the Western strategy of containment [of Iraq]. Over the past decade that strategy destroyed more weapons than in the Gulf war, dismantled Iraq's nuclear weapons programme and halted Saddam's medium and long-range missiles programmes. Iraq's military strength is now less than half its size than at the time of the last Gulf war.


“Ironically, it is only because Iraq's military forces are so weak that we can even contemplate its invasion. Some advocates of conflict claim that Saddam's forces are so weak, so demoralised and so badly equipped that the war will be over in a few days. We cannot base our military strategy on the assumption that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a threat.


“Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term – namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target. It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions …”


In other words, Iraq was very little threat to its neighbours or to the wider world.  This was Cook’s judgement in March 2003, having seen intelligence reports on Iraq since Labour came to power in 1997.  He saw them as a matter of course as Foreign Secretary up to June 2001, and he made it his business to see them after that, when he was Leader of the House.


Blair’s different view

Over the previous twelve months, Cook sat in the Cabinet while, time without number, the Prime Minister gave a very different view of the threat from Iraq.  For example, on 10 April 2002, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons:


"… there is no doubt at all that the development of weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein poses a severe threat not just to the region, but to the wider world.


and, later that day, he said that Saddam Hussein:


“… is a threat to his own people and to the region and, if allowed to develop these weapons, a threat to us also."


On 3 September 2002, at a press conference in his Sedgefield constituency, he said:


"Iraq poses a real and a unique threat to the security of the region and the rest of the world.”


And in his Foreword to the September dossier, published on 24 September 2002, he described Iraq armed with “weapons of mass destruction” as “a current and serious threat to the UK national interest”.  He continued:


“I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current, that he has made progress on WMD, and that he has to be stopped."


While the Prime Minister peddled these lies about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”, and the threat posed by Iraq because of them to its neighbours and the wider world, Robin Cook remained in the Cabinet, sharing collective cabinet responsibility for peddling what he knew to be lies, and for working up war fever against Iraq by peddling them, and for deploying a third of our armed forces on the borders of Iraq alongside massive US forces – which made the US/UK invasion of Iraq inevitable, long before 17 March 2003, when he finally resigned.


(It is true that other Cabinet Ministers also knew that the Prime Minister was peddling lies about Iraq’s weaponry in order to get Britain to war alongside the US.  For example, in the famous Downing Street Memorandum, containing the minutes of the Prime Minister’s meeting on Iraq on 23 July 2002, Jack Straw, the Minister allegedly in charge of UK foreign affairs at the time, was minuted as saying:


“It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”


But, nobody has ever accused Jack Straw of being a man of integrity.)


One-sided dossier

Over a year after his resignation, in the Commons debate on the Hutton Report on 20 July 2004, Robin Cook once again gave the House the benefit of his knowledge of the pre-war intelligence on Iraq.  He told the House:


“I saw many intelligence assessments when I was at the Foreign Office. Doubt and intelligence assessments go hand in hand; doubt is in the nature of intelligence work. One is trying to guess the secrets that somebody is trying to keep, so it inevitably follows that one is trying to carry out a task even worse than that of the Israelites: to make bricks out of straws in the wind.


“To be fair to the agencies, they were always absolutely frank about the limitations of their knowledge. That is why I was frankly astonished by the September dossier, which bore no relation in tone to any of the intelligence assessments that I saw. It was one-sided, dogmatic and unqualified.”


Yet he lent his name to this “one-sided, dogmatic and unqualified” document for the next six months by staying in the Cabinet.  Had he, a former Foreign Secretary, resigned in September 2002, and described the dossier as “one-sided, dogmatic and unqualified”, it would have been next to impossible for the Prime Minister to take Britain to war.  And there was a chance that without Britain, the US would not have gone to war either.  Then he would have deserved a small place in history as a man of integrity.


“Containing” Iraq

As Robin Cook said in his resignation statement, as Foreign Secretary from 1997-2001, he was “partly responsible for the Western strategy of containment” of Iraq.  This is a euphemism for the Western policy, begun in 1991, of punishing the Iraqi people through economic sanctions for having Saddam Hussein as their head of state.


His US partner, and friend, in this endeavour was Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.  The kindhearted Madeleine had no doubt that punishment was being meted out to innocent Iraqis and that the punishment was severe, but was nevertheless justified.  When asked in a CBS Sixty Minutes interview by Leslie Stahl on 12 May 1996:


“… We have heard that a half million children have died [as a result of sanctions against Iraq]. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”


Madeleine Albright did not quibble with the figure, replying:


“...I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.”


Perhaps, that’s what’s meant by an ethical foreign policy.


Ostensibly, the Iraqi people were being punished because Iraq had refused to disarm itself of the weapons proscribed by Security Council resolution 687 passed in April 1991.  This resolution specified that once Iraq disarmed (which it had done before 1991 was out) the economic sanctions “shall have no further force or effect”.  In reality, the Iraqi people were being punished because their head of state was Saddam Hussein.


It was US policy from ever 687 was passed, through three presidencies, that sanctions would not be lifted while Saddam Hussein was in power.  For example, on 20 May 1991, President George Bush Sen said:


“At this juncture, my view is we don’t want to lift these sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power”.


And, just after her appointment as secretary of State , Madeleine Albright said on 26 March 1997:


“We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted. Our view, which is unshakable, is that Iraq must prove its peaceful intentions. It can only do that by complying with all of the Security Council resolutions to which it is subjected.


“Is it possible to conceive of such a government under Saddam Hussein? When I was a professor, I taught that you have to consider all possibilities. As Secretary of State, I have to deal in the realm of reality and probability. And the evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein’s intentions will never be peaceful.”


So Iraqi children continued to pay the price for this duplicitous policy, which Robin Cook continued enthusiastically when he became Foreign Secretary in May 1997.


Desert Fox

As part of the “containment” policy, Iraq was subject to military action continuously from 1991.  None of this action – neither the overflying and bombing in the no fly zones imposed by the West, nor the more intense bombing campaigns, such as Desert Fox in December 1998 – was authorised by the Security Council.  All of it was in breach of the UN Charter.  Yet Robin Cook supported all of it as Foreign Secretary.


In the House of Commons on 20 July 2004, he was taxed with his apparent double standards in supporting military action ostensibly to enforce the disarmament of Iraq in December 1998, but his refusal to do likewise in March 2003.  He replied:


“… we took that action [Desert Fox] precisely because there was no co-operation with UN weapons inspectors at that time”


This is a lie: UNSCOM inspectors had visited some 300 sites in the month prior to Desert Fox, at only 5 of which was there any problem about access, and at none of which was access refused.  IAEA inspectors had no trouble at all.  See my pamphlet Iraq: Lies, Half-Truths & Omissions, Annex D.



As Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook was also party to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, again without the authority of the Security Council and therefore in breach of the UN Charter.  After the event, official mythology has managed to establish this as a “good” war, successfully fought for the grand humanitarian purpose of returning to their homes hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees expelled at the instigation of Slobodan Milosevic.


This official mythology omits the large fact that the NATO bombing triggered a humantarian disaster in Kosovo in the first place: that the vast majority of the refugees returned to their homes were in their homes when the bombing began, and that many other Kosovo Albanians who were alive when the bombing began were dead a few days later.


Robin Cook was party to this deception which got thousands of Serbs and Albanians killed.



David Morrison


Labour & Trade Union Review

3 September 2005