Robin Cook, Iraq and Kosovo

On 3 December, I submitted a letter to The Guardian, which (perhaps predictably) didn’t publish it:

Robin Cook (“A UN for this century, not the last one”, December 3) rightly welcomes the assertion by the UN high-level panel on ‘Threats, Challenges and Change‘ that ‘the international community’ has the right under the existing Charter to override state sovereignty in order to intervene, by force in the last resort, in cases of major humanitarian disasters: but he skates smoothly over the panel’s essential caveat that such intervention must be authorised by the UN Security Council, not by "individual Member States bypassing the Security Council" (para 206 of the report).

Could this be because Robin Cook was among the principal authors of the NATO attack on Serbia over Kosovo in 1999, which — contrary to the current received wisdom — was never authorised nor even retrospectively endorsed by the Security Council, and was therefore illegal, as well as unnecessary, unsuccessful and counter-productive, setting a disastrous precedent for the similarly illegal attack by the US, UK and others on Iraq in 2003? NATO’s pretext for failing even to seek UN authority for the 1999 attack, mentioned in para 87 of the UN report, was that the Security Council was paralysed: but this was only because NATO’s ultimatum to Serbia contained such extreme demands, obviously unacceptable to the Serbs, that Russia and probably others in the Security Council could never have endorsed them. All those extreme demands were eventually dropped, thus enabling the UN to endorse, and the Serbs to accept, a settlement that could probably have been agreed earlier without the need for the NATO bombing. Good intentions are not enough. ‘

Let the record show, however, that Robin Cook has made ample amends for his (no doubt reluctant) role in the Kosovo débacle by his brave and principled stand on Iraq, even if the former forces him to pull some of his punches on the latter.

9 December 2004

6 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    I wonder about Kosovo though. What was the correct
    action that should have been taken by the larger world

    It seems to me that Soviet communism froze awful
    engine of European politics for around 50 years but
    with the fall of the Berlin wall the crushing forces
    of that engine began to move again.

    When all hell broke out in the Balkans what should
    have been done, in your view, given the bloody and
    terrible history of horrible civil war in that region
    which was an issue for UK Governments throughout most
    of the 19th Century (remember Gladstone and the
    Midlothian campaign, the The Bosnian Revolt – 1875,
    the Bulgarian Massacres – April 1876)

    Difficult choices for any Prime Minister and I’m not
    sure what a better solution than the one taken would
    have looked like.

  2. Brian says:

    This post has been removed by the author.

  3. Brian says:

    I don’t think it’s possible to answer in a single ‘comment’ your (perfectly fair) question (“What different action would you have taken?”) in respect of all the post-cold war problems and conflicts in the Balkans, but in the case of Kosovo there was a clear alternative policy that could and should have been followed.

    First, we — i.e. the US, UK and the rest of NATO — should have recognised the absolutely essential need to work with the Russians, to ensure that they had a part to play in any eventual international settlement, and that their own interests and concerns were given due weight. This was essential, not just because Russia is a major regional power with legitimate national interests in the area, but also because as a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, Russian agreement with our settlement proposals was the key to prior UN endorsement of our proposals, and UN authority for the use of force in the last resort (but only in the last resort) to implement them. Russian agreement and support were also essential if Milosevic was to be forced to accept the demands of the settlement plan, since Russian (and consequently UN)support for the proposals would have isolated the Serbs and put them in a hopeless position, as indeed eventually happened. We failed miserably on all these counts, all through the short-sighted and doomed policy of keeping the Russians on the sidelines.

    Secondly, we should have used the Rambouillet conference as a genuine attempt to secure the agreement of the Serbs (for which Russian participation would have been essential) as well as that of the Kosovo Albanians to an overall international settlement — instead of deliberately skewing the demands made at Rambouillet so as to ensure that the Albanians would accept them, the Serbs would reject them, and the Russians would be excluded, so as to provide a fraudulent ‘justification’ for the bombing campaign on which Madeleine Albright and others were determined from the outset.

    To achieve Russian support and Serbian agreement at Rambouillet, the NATO side could and should have examined all the specific elements in their settlement demands to which the Russians couldn’t agree, and to which no Serbian government could have subscribed, to see whether they were really essential to the long-term aims of the negotiation (i.e. the withdrawal of Serbian troops and police from Kosovo and the installation of an international peace-keeping force and civil administration, in order to end the violence being perpetrated by both the Albanian KLA and the Serbian ethnic cleansers). The fact that every single one of the NATO demands which were unacceptable to the Russians and the Serbs was deleted from the eventual settlement (which NATO hailed as a brilliant success) demonstrates that those objectionable demands were *not* essential to our aims. Those elements could and should have been debated with the Russians at Rambouillet, identified as obstacles to a peaceful settlement, and dropped there and then, instead of being eliminated only after many weeks of destructive bombing by NATO had demonstrated that the bombing was getting nowhere, and indeed that the bombing had precipitated a radical acceleration of ethnic cleansing and the start of the expulsion of Kosovo Albanians into neighbouring countries.

    In short, what was finally agreed after three months of illegal and counter-productive bombing and killing by NATO could and should have been negotiated and agreed before NATO dropped a single bomb, at Rambouillet. This could have produced the results eventually produced three months later by the revised settlement terms: Russian support and participation, leading to UN endorsement, leading to pressure from the UN and the Russians on Milosevic to swallow the settlement terms, and an end to both KLA and Serbian violence and ethnic cleansing. The bombing wasn’t necessary. All those people whom we killed died for nothing.

    Of course it’s impossible to *prove* that if the NATO side had made a genuine effort at Rambouillet to keep the Russians aboard, thus to get UN legitimation, and thus to put irresistible pressure on Milosevic to accept the settlement demands, he would have done so without the extra pressure on him exerted by the bombing. But what is absolutely clear is that NATO ought to have tried this course of action before resorting to bombing, not afterwards. The attack on Yugoslavia was emphatically not a last resort.

    The detailed evidence for all this is at , and ,
    including links to all the main relevant texts and documents.

    There *was* a better way, and our failure to take it was the biggest failure of British and US diplomacy since Suez and until Iraq. (And incidentally that failure was in no way attributable to any defects in the UN Charter, the performance or composition of the Security Council, or the lack of any doctrine in international law of humanitarian or pre-emptive intervention.) Just as over Iraq, the US and UK governments took us to war and killed thousands of innocent civilians on a deliberately fraudulent prospectus.

    10 Dec 04

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your long and extremely interesting response.
    For what it is worth I was appalled at what was going on
    at the time – both within all the areas of the former
    Yugoslavia over the years as well as the campaign in Kosovo. In addition to the civil casualties (terrible)
    it seemed to me we also diced at various times with
    a full scale war with Russia and/or a winter land
    campaign to be undertaken only by British forces against
    the dug in Serb army. Neither of these was a nice prospect.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for a very interesting piece on Robin Cook, Iraq and Kosovo. The illegality of the Kosovo war with regard to endorsement by the Security Council is indeed soemthing that has been glossed over.

    However, I’m not so sure that I agree with your opinion that “Robin Cook has made ample amends for his (no doubt reluctant) role in the Kosovo débacle by his brave and principled stand on Iraq”.

    If Robin Cook is on principle opposed to nations attacking sovereign nations without Security Council endorsement (and when there is no case for acting in self-defence), then why did he not resign over the NATO attack on Serbia?

    Given that he was the man driving the “ethical foreign policy”, surely we should conclude that he supported the attack on Serbia because he believed it to be ethical.

    So, if he believed the attack on Serbia to be ethical, how can he be opposed to the war in Iraq?

    I suspect that it’s far more likely that his belief in an ethical foreign policy was strong enough to make him resign as Leader of the House of Commons but not quite strong enough to make him resign as Foreign Secretary.

  6. Brian says:

    These are wholly legitimate questions and constitute fair comment. I suppose that if one had to play devil’s (or rather Robin’s) advocate, one might argue that even if of dubious legality, the attack on Serbia was *ethically* justified because of the Serbs’ unacceptable treatment of the Kosovo Albanians; whereas the attack on Iraq was neither legal *nor* ethically justified, because there was a peaceful alternative available (i.e. to give the UN inspectors more time). Personally I wouldn’t buy that, though, because there was also a peaceful alternative available in the case of Kosovo: namely, to negotiate changes in the settlement proposals issued at Rambouillet in order to win Russian support, UN endorsement and Serbian acceptance (as indeed eventually happened). But Robin Cook and others could reply in turn that without the pressure put on them by the NATO bombing, the Serbs wouldn’t have accepted the eventual settlement terms. Of course that’s something we shall never know.

    Perhaps the moral is that we shouldn’t demand or expect consistency from our politicians. Maybe Robin Cook simply learned his lesson from the Kosovo experience and applied it when it came to Iraq. Or your less kindly interpretation may be correct. Perhaps both explanations are correct. Motives in complex situtations are generally mixed.