Words such as “conscience” and “honor” have pretty much disappeared from the American political lexicon in this age of Bush Administration lies and leaks. But when the histories of this time are written, it will be remembered that those precious characteristics were not wholly absent.
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair was maneuvering Britain into Bush’s Iraq War coalition, one of the most prominent leaders of his Labour Party–a former foreign minister who then served as the party’s leader in the House of Commons–resigned from the government and took a place on the back benches to deliver a blistering condemnation of the irrational arguments that Bush and Blair were making for an unwise and unnecessary war.
Robin Cook, who made international headlines with that act of conscience, died Saturday at age 59. To his last days, he remained an ardent foe of the war. Britain’s Observer newspaper called him “the most incisively potent of the war’s opponents.”
Cook’s resignation speech remains one of the most noted parliamentary addresses of the contemporary age. And rightly so, as Cook’s words have proven to have been remarkably prescient.
Here is a portion of what he said on March 17, 2003, shortly after he left Blair’s government to cast a historic vote against the invasion and occupation of Iraq:
I have chosen to address the House first on why I cannot support a war without international agreement or domestic support.
The present Prime Minister is the most successful leader of the Labour Party in my lifetime. I applaud the heroic efforts that the Prime Minister has made in trying to secure a second resolution [at the United Nations]. I do not think that anybody could have done better than the Foreign Secretary in working to get support for a second resolution within the Security Council.
But the very intensity of those attempts underlines how important it was to succeed. Now that those attempts have failed, we cannot pretend that getting a second resolution was of no importance.
The 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 partner–not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council.
Only a year ago, we and the United States were part of a coalition against terrorism that was wider and more diverse than I would ever have imagined possible. History will be astonished at the diplomatic miscalculations that led so quickly to the disintegration of that powerful coalition.
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 a war in which a shot has yet to be fired.
I have heard some parallels between military action in these circumstances and the military action that we took in Kosovo. There was no doubt about the multilateral support that we had for the action that we took in Kosovo. It was supported by NATO; it was supported by the European Union; it was supported by every single one of the seven neighbors in the region. France and Germany were our active allies. It is precisely because we have none of that support in this case that it was all the more important to get agreement in the Security Council as the last hope of demonstrating international agreement.
Our difficulty in getting support this time is that neither the international community nor the British public is persuaded that there is an urgent and compelling reason for this military action in Iraq.
None of us can predict the death toll of civilians from 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 least in the thousands.
For four years as Foreign Secretary I was partly responsible for the Western strategy of containment. Over the past decade that strategy destroyed more weapons than in the Gulf War, dismantled Iraq’s nuclear weapons program and halted Saddam’s medium- and long-range missiles programs.
Iraq’s military strength is now less than half its size than at the time of the last Gulf War. Some advocates of conflict claim that Saddam’s forces are so weak, so demoralized 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. Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for twenty years, and which we helped to create?
It has been a favorite theme of commentators that this House no longer occupies a central role in British politics.
Nothing could better demonstrate that they are wrong than for this House to stop the commitment of troops in a war that has neither international agreement nor domestic support.
I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the government.