Why I had to leave the cabinet.
This will be a war without support at home or agreement
Tuesday March 18, 2003
I 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
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
The threshold for war should always be high. None of us
can predict the death toll of civilians in the
forthcoming bombardment of Iraq. 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 munitions factories.
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
We do not express the same impatience with the persis
tent 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