Robin Cook: Yes, but…

Robin Cook will, as all the commentators and obituarists have been saying since he died, be sorely missed.  He was a big figure (at least metaphorically) on the political scene, and there’s no obvious candidate to replace him as a respected and eloquent mouthpiece for opponents of the disastrous war in Iraq, with a record as a former heavy-weight minister and what we all assumed was going to be an assured place near the top of a future Labour government.  

But obituarists and commentators on the recently departed sometimes go over the top in hagiography, and even more often gloss over their hero’s blemishes.  Several have noted (and others have denied) that Cook was a political loner, lacking clubbability or a coterie of Cookites comparable to the Blairites and Brownites: that he could be short-tempered and abrupt, sometimes intimidating; in short, a bit of a cold fish.  I remember him arriving forgivably late at a local Labour Party Christmas dinner  at which he was the guest speaker.  Mo Mowlam, guest speaker at the previous year’s dinner, had spent the whole time before dinner working the group of party members, shaking hands and hugging, exchanging warm and friendly words with every single person present.  Robin Cook went straight to his place at the table, took his speaking notes out of his inside jacket pocket, and spent almost the whole of dinner reading them and annotating them, barely addressing a word to the local party Chairperson on one side of him or to the 1000th member to be recruited by the local party, a distinguished harpist, on the other.  Shyness, probably;  nervousness about his speech, apparently — but both a little surprising at such an unchallenging and informal occasion and with such an experienced and apparently self-confident politician.

But the matter on which the comments have been most loudly silent is surely Cook’s prominent role in the encouragement and prosecution of NATO’s attack on Serbia over Kosovo.  Last December (2004) I was prompted by one of Cook’s articles in the Guardian about the new doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ to write a piece in Ephems recalling that Cook, with Madeleine Albright, then US Secretary of State under Clinton, had been a prime architect of the attack on Serbia in 1999 (it was hardly a war), and with Albright had played a leading role in the fraudulent charade played out at the Rambouillet conference in order to justify the attack.  I summarised there what I had written earlier in a much more detailed analysis backed up by ample chapter and verse.  But it’s important that history should not swallow the current heavily air-brushed version of the Kosovo affair.  NATO attacked Serbia because the Serbs would not accept an ultimatum crafted at Rambouillet specifically to ensure that the Serbs would reject it (no conceivable Serbian government could have accepted it), while arranging that it should be accepted by the Kosovo Albanians in return for a fraudulent promise of independence following an act of self-determination, a promise that has still not been kept and which probably never can be kept.  Far from stopping or preventing a humanitarian disaster and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the ruthless NATO bombing precipitated a sharp aggravation of both, and caused a flight of refugees into neighbouring countries at untold human cost.  The military action was in brazen violation of the UN Charter: the Security Council never authorised it, indeed was never invited by NATO to authorise it, on the ludicrous pretext that the Russians would have vetoed an authorising resolution (failure to apply for legal permission required for an action can hardly be justified by the expectation that it would probably be refused).  Three months of bombing, steadily escalated and entailing heavy civilian casualties and economic havoc, failed to coerce the Serbs into accepting the Rambouillet ultimatum.  President Clinton was eventually persuaded by a gung-ho Mr Blair to threaten the Serbs with a land invasion, but the Serbs knew as well as everyone else that no such invasion would be agreed to by all the members of NATO, some of whom were already becoming deeply worried by the effects of the bombing and the lack of progress towards the settlement that it was meant to achieve.  Eventually a settlement was agreed behind NATO’s back by the Americans, the Germans, the Russians and the Finnish President, who presented the Serbs with terms from which the unacceptable (and unnecessary) elements from Rambouillet had been excised, thus facing Milosevic with the threat of international isolation and UN sanctions if he refused them.  Had NATO, bear-led by Cook and Albright, been sufficiently far-sighted and flexible to offer those revised terms at Rambouillet, the terms could have won Russian and therefore UN support, the Serbs would have been forced to accept them then instead of only three months later, and the bombing would never have happened.  It was illegal, unnecessary, and unsuccessful.  And, perhaps worst of all, it set a disastrous precedent for Iraq four years later.  Tony Blair got away with it over Kosovo, skilfully spun into a great success and a monument to the pernicious and dangerous doctrine of humanitarian intervention without international authority; no wonder he thought he could get away with it again.  Meanwhile the Serbs have been ethnically cleansed from most of Kosovo, at further enormous human cost;  no way has been found to enable Serbs and Albanians to live together in Kosovo in anything resembling peace;  and the future of Kosovo remains unresolved, the province still under international military and civilian occupation.

The uncomfortable truth is that Madeleine Albright regarded Kosovo as a re-run of what had happened in Bosnia and Croatia, and was determined not to repeat the mistake made there by the west with its reluctance to resort to the use of force against the Serbs.  Her aim at Rambouillet was not to negotiate a peaceful settlement which both the Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians could legitimately accept, but to contrive a set of proposals which the Serbs would be forced to reject, thus offering a bogus pretext for  military action.  In a weird pre-echo of what was to happen later over Iraq, the objections of British government legal advisers were overridden at the behest of the Americans.  Just as Tony Blair could not find the courage to tell Bush that unless there was explicit UN approval, Britain would not take part in an attack on Iraq, so neither Blair nor Robin Cook could quite summon up the spititual fortitude to dissociate themselves from Madeleine Albright’s determination to attack the Serbs, come what may, while pretending to look for a peaceful settlement which both sides could accept. 

Robin Cook was an outstanding and principled politician who will long be remembered for the courageous stand he took against an illegal, unnecessary and unsuccessful war.  But there was an almost unrecognised skeleton in his political cupboard, labelled ‘Kosovo’.  Perhaps that was why, deep down, he couldn’t bring himself to connive at the same blunders and fraud a second time.

Madeleine Albright, we have learned in these days following Robin Cook’s funeral, wanted very much to attend the funeral but was prevented from doing so by sickness.  Tony Blair didn’t attend the funeral, either, in his case because he was on holiday.   


Footnote: The case against the NATO attack on Serbia over Kosovo is further documented here and here.