Why I had to leave the cabinet
This will be a war without support at home or agreement abroad
Robin Cook; Tuesday March 18, 2003; The Guardian (U.K.)
have resigned from the cabinet because I believe that a fundamental
principle of Labour's foreign policy has been violated. If we believe
in an international community based on binding rules and institutions,
we cannot simply set them aside when they produce results that are
inconvenient to us I cannot defend a war with neither international
agreement nor domestic support.
I applaud the determined efforts of the prime minister and foreign
secretary to secure a second resolution. Now that those attempts have
ended in failure, we cannot pretend that getting a second resolution
was of no importance.
In recent days France has been at the receiving end of the most
vitriolic criticism. However, it is not France alone that wants more
time for inspections. Germany is opposed to us. Russia is opposed to
us. Indeed at no time have we signed up even the minimum majority to
carry a second resolution.
We delude ourselves about the degree of international hostility to
military action if we imagine that it is all the fault of President
Chirac. The harsh reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a
war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we
are a leading member. Not Nato. Not the EU. And now not the security
council. To end up in such diplomatic isolation is a serious reverse.
Only a year ago we and the US were part of a coalition against
terrorism which was wider and more diverse than I would previously have
thought possible. History will be astonished at the diplomatic
miscalculations that led so quickly to the disintegration of that
powerful coalition. Britain is not a superpower. Our interests are best
protected, not by unilateral action, but by multilateral agreement and
a world order governed by rules.
Yet tonight the international partnerships most important to us are
weakened. The European Union is divided. The security council is in
stalemate. Those are heavy casualties of war without a single shot yet
being fired. The threshold for war should always be high. None of us
can predict the death toll of civilians in the forthcoming bombardment
But the US warning of a bombing campaign that will "shock and awe"
makes it likely that casualties will be numbered at the very least in
the thousands. Iraq's military strength is now less than half its size
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 invasion. And
some claim his forces are so weak, so demoralised and so badly equipped
that the war will be over in days. We cannot base our military strategy
on the basis that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify
pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a seri ous threat.
Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly
understood sense of that term - namely, a credible device capable of
being delivered against strategic city targets. It probably does still
have biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions.
But it has had them since the 1980s when the US sold Saddam the
anthrax agents and the then British government built his chemical and
Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to
disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years and which
we helped to create?
And why is it necessary to resort to war this week while Saddam's
ambition to complete his weapons programme is frustrated by the
presence of UN inspectors?
I have heard it said that Iraq has had not months but 12 years in which to disarm, and our patience is exhausted.
Yet it is over 30 years since resolution 242 called on Israel to
withdraw from the occupied territories. We do not express the same
impatience with the persistent refusal of Israel to comply. What has
come to trouble me most over past weeks is the suspicion that if the
hanging chads in Florida had gone the other way and Al Gore had been
elected, we would not now be about to commit British troops to action
in Iraq. I believe the prevailing mood of the British public is sound.
They do not doubt that Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator. But
they are not persuaded he is a clear and present danger to Britain.
They want the inspections to be given a chance.
And they are suspicious that they are being pushed hurriedly into conflict by a US administration with an agenda of its own.
Above all, they are uneasy at Britain taking part in a military
adventure without a broader international coalition and against the
hostility of many of our traditional allies. It has been a favourite
theme of commentators that the House of Commons has lost its central
role in British politics.
Nothing could better demonstrate that they are wrong than for
parliament to stop the commitment of British troops to a war that has
neither international authority nor domestic support.
· Robin Cook was, until yesterday, leader of the House of Commons.