“I do not know but there are some who if they were tied to the whipping post – and could but get one hand free would use it to ring the bells & fire the cannon to celebrate their liberty.” (Thoreau, 1851)
Cook’s lasting achievement was his “ethical foreign policy”, former culture secretary Chris Smith declared in the Independent. “It represented a brave attempt to cast our country’s relations with the rest of the world in a moral light.” (Smith, ’Robin Cook: 1946-2005, The house of commons was his true home,’ The Independent, August 8, 2005)
“As foreign secretary, he rescued British foreign policy from the dead waters of failed Tory cynicism”, Labour MP Denis MacShane wrote in the New Statesman. (MacShane, ‘More loyal than left: Robin Cook: a tribute,‘ New Statesman, August 15, 2005)
An editorial in the same issue referred to Cook’s “illustrious past”. (Leader, ‘That missing voice of the future,’ New Statesman, August 15, 2005) “Cook, perhaps uniquely among his peers, remained remarkably true to his early ideals.”
The Independent on Sunday described Cook as “A man of high principle.” (Cole Moreton and Francis Elliott, August 7, 2005)
The Daily Mirror went further, describing Cook as “A man of towering principle.” (‘Voice of the Daily Mirror: Farewell to a great man,’ The Mirror, August 13, 2005)
The Sun wrote:
“Readers did not always agree with his [Cook’s] views but admire him for standing up for his principles – which they find a rare quality among politicians.” (‘Britain has lost an honest politician in Robin Cook,‘ The Sun, August 9, 2005)
Menzies Campbell, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, one of the mainstream’s most forthright critics of foreign policy, wrote of Cook:
“His assertion that Labour’s foreign policy should have an ‘ethical dimension’ and have the promotion of human rights as its centrepiece echoed what his party (and my own) had been saying in opposition. The reality proved to be more difficult for him.”(Campbell, ‘I knew the reality of Robin Cook and it was nothing like his image,’ Independent on Sunday, August 7, 2005)
We described some of this ‘difficulty’ in Part 1. Cook supplied Hawk fighter-bombers to the Suharto regime committing genocide in East Timor. He propagandised on behalf of US-UK sanctions that killed one million Iraqi civilians. He defended the cynical December 1998 bombing of Iraq and spread government lies about Iraq’s alleged failure to cooperate with inspectors. He repeated propaganda justifying Nato’s 1999 bombing of Serbia – the list goes on.
Campbell’s vestigial level of honesty was repeated in the Daily Mail where Tim Luckhurst wrote of Cook:
“He was unique because in a party that traded principles for power he resolutely refused to surrender his.” (Luckhurst, ‘The last Labour man of principle,’ Daily Mail, August 8, 2005)
“As Foreign Secretary in Blair’s first government, Robin Cook’s ability to prick his party’s conscience was diluted. His ‘ethical foreign policy’ was not a success.”
No disrespectful, gory details were supplied on who paid for the diluted failure and how.
Some of the most honest dissent appeared in The Scotsman. George Kerevan ignored the issues detailed in these alerts but noted Cook’s many remarkable U-turns:
“After the personal eulogies are over and the newspaper obituaries consigned to the archives, history will judge Robin Cook’s legacy primarily by his time at the Foreign Office. It could be a harsh verdict.” (Kerevan, ‘Robin Cook’s failings cannot be ignored,’ The Scotsman, August 11, 2005)
As for the ’ethical’ foreign policy:
“This would now become the justification for supporting a new doctrine of military intervention to restore human rights and impose democracy, first in Kosovo (1999) and later in Sierra Leone (2000).”
Was this intended ironically? Kerevan added:
“Personally, I think the NATO attack on fascist Serbia was warranted to halt the genocide [sic] in Kosovo.”
Now that New Labour’s claims to an ethical foreign policy have been demolished by the lies and bloodshed of Iraq, mainstream commentators would rather airbrush Cook’s embarrassing reference to morality from history. Former Liberal party leader David Steel wrote:
“Robin Cook was often misquoted as adopting ‘an ethical foreign policy’: he was much more careful in his use of words, recognising that any country’s foreign policy tends to be ruled by considerations of the national interest.
“What he called for was ‘an ethical dimension to foreign policy’.” (David Steel, ‘Robin put ethics on the map,’ The Independent On Sunday, August 14, 2005)
Denis MacShane agreed:
“He never used the phrase ‘ethical foreign policy‘; instead, he said there should be an ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy.” (MacShane, ‘More loyal than left: Robin Cook: a tribute,‘ New Statesman, August 15, 2005)
This is nonsense. Cook talked of putting “human rights at the heart of our foreign policy”. This +would+ have constituted an ethical foreign policy, not an amoral or unethical policy with an ethical dimension.
It is interesting to note, though, Steel and MacShane’s comparative honesty in hinting at the lack of principle in state policy. Like Luckhurst, they fail, of course, to indicate the consequences of actions guided by “considerations of the national interest” for human beings on the end of our guns, bombs and economic power in the real world. Honesty is fine in abstract. Hinting is acceptable. Putting two and two together – the fundamental lack of principle with specific, violent results on the ground – is all but forbidden. Isolated oases of truth will occasionally be glimpsed in the comment sections of small circulation newspapers and magazines. But the general public is protected by a media firewall from the reality of US-UK motivation in a world where too much is never enough for the business titans who are the real power behind the ‘democratic’ throne.
Shortly before the Tories were defeated in the 1997 general election, Michael Meacher, soon to become environment minister, and Robin Cook, foreign secretary-in-waiting, proclaimed that Labour would form the “first truly green government in this country” by putting “the environment at the heart of government”. (Meeting of the Socialist Environment Resources Association, Friends’ Meeting House, London, January 25, 1997)
This happened in the same way that ethics were placed “at the heart” of foreign policy.
Cook has rightly received credit for challenging Blair’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and for resigning in protest. On the brink of war, he asserted in his resignation speech:
“Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term.” (Ben Macintyre, ‘Cook cuts to heart of debate with razor of principle,’ The Times, March 18, 2003)
Cook subsequently reported private conversations with Blair that suggested his boss had long been aware that this was the case. (See:www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-842665,00.html)
Cook also exposed the deceit of ministers in the Matrix Churchill affair, which involved sending British arms to Saddam Hussein. But John Pilger writes of Cook:
“He was never the front-bencher fearlessly explaining to a puzzled nation what the arms-to-Iraq affair +meant+: that it was a British scandal of Watergate proportions. Looking back, his passionate performances at the Dispatch Box and on television probably helped contain it.” (Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p.141)
Cook did finally rebel and turn on Blair, but by any honest moral accounting he did so far too late. It is of course difficult to know what values, thoughts and feelings truly motivate an individual. What can be said with confidence, however, is that when it mattered, when Cook occupied a position of real power, he acted as a ruthless propagandist facilitating some of New Labour’s worst crimes against humanity. His mendacity on Iraq, for example, helped clear the way for the terrible events of 2003 and beyond.
Predictably, the response of the media has been to fail even to mention Cook’s role in these earlier horrors. No amount of evidence of criminality and lying over Iraq has been sufficient to persuade the media to take a look back at Blair’s previous ‘moral crusades‘.
The reason is straight forward enough. US-UK crimes are reflexively viewed by British journalists as ’humanitarian interventions’, ‘necessary evils’, or at the very worst, ’mistakes’. Anything more damning is almost literally unthinkable.
Our motive for writing these alerts is not at all to dishonour the memory of Robin Cook. Indeed, if Cook was as passionate about ethical issues and the relief of suffering as his supporters claim, he would have welcomed our words. Why is this so?
It is clear that state-corporate elites feel deeply threatened by public awareness of the extent to which people and planet are sacrificed to power and profit. No expense is spared in the attempt to veil the truth in comforting illusions.
It is reasonable to assume, then, that human beings pay a high price for trivial arguments, polite omissions and respectful silences. Also by implication, rational, compassionate challenges to deceptive propaganda surely do have the power to relieve suffering rooted in greed and violence.
If we care about suffering, we must care about truth – painful though it often is. Silence out of respect for the dead is never justified if it fails to respect the right to life of potential future victims.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Ask the journalists below why they have failed to discuss the cynical and violent reality behind Robin Cook’s “ethical foreign policy”.
Write to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
Email: [email protected]
Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer
Email: [email protected]
Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent
Email: [email protected]
Write to John Kampfner, editor of the New Statesman
Email: [email protected]
Write to Graham Dudman, managing editor of The Sun
Email: [email protected]