Robin Cook’s ‘Ethical’ Foreign Policy

August 6 And The Barbarians Of The Dark Ages

Every death is a tragedy to be mourned. August 6 marked the 60th anniversary of the agonizing deaths of 140,000 Japanese people in the city of Hiroshima. In her article, ‘Eight Hundred Metres From The Hypocentre,’ Yamaoka Michiko described her experience as a fifteen year-old high school student:

“My clothes were burnt and so was my skin. I was in rags. I had braided my hair, but now it was like a lion’s mane. There were people, barely breathing, trying to push their intestines back in. People with their legs wrenched off. Without heads. Or with faces burned and swollen out of shape. The scene I saw was a living hell.” (Michiko, in Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove eds., Voices of a People’s History, Seven Stories, 2004, p.365)

The deliberate targeting of civilians in war is deemed a heinous crime by most sane people. Few would seek to justify the incineration and dismemberment of 52 civilians in London on July 7 on the grounds that, as Bush and Blair insist, it was an engagement in the “war on terror”. Who, then, would seek to justify the burning to death of an entire city of civilians in Hiroshima, the equivalent of nearly 2,700 July 7 attacks? Most journalists, it turns out.

The BBC reported blandly:

“There is continuing controversy over whether the bomb constituted a war crime, but many commentators believe the US attack helped bring an early end to World War II in the Pacific.” (‘Hiroshima remembers atomic bomb,’ August 6, 2005; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4748027.stm)

In a Daily Mail article with the obscene title, ‘Why this was a good day for mankind,’ Andrew Kenny wrote of the bombing:

“Was US President Harry Truman right to drop it? I have no doubt he was. However I look at it, I cannot see other than that the bomb saved millions of lives, Allied and Japanese. All British combatants in World War II that I have ever spoken to, including my parents, described the same reaction when they heard of the Hiroshima bomb: tremendous relief.” (Kenny, ‘Why this was a good day for mankind,’ Daily Mail, July 30, 2005)

How suddenly black and white the choices, how obviously necessary the evil, how readily the shoulders shrug, when the incinerated infants, pregnant women, hospitalised, infirm and aged are labelled with a different nationality to our own. But suffering has no nationality and nor does compassion.

Kenny is presumably unaware that president Truman’s chief of staff, admiral William D. Leahy, wrote that using the “barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons”. He lamented that the US government “had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages”. (Quoted, Anthony Gregory, ‘Targeting Civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki,’ August 6, 2004, http://www.fff.org/comment/com0408b.asp)

The US Strategic Bombing Survey, which interviewed 700 Japanese military and political officials after the war, came to this conclusion:

“Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” (Quoted, Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories, 1997, p.350)

In 1963, former US president Dwight Eisenhower told Newsweek that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing”. (Gregory, op. cit)

Brigadier general Carter Clarke, the military intelligence officer in charge of preparing intercepted Japanese cables for president Truman and his advisors, commented:

“…when we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew that we knew we didn’t need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs.” (Gregory, ibid)

Only one of these quotations appeared anywhere in the UK national press over the last six months (Eisenhower’s in the Independent).

Robin Cook – Ethical Revolutionary?

August 6 also saw the untimely death of former foreign secretary Robin Cook. This tragedy “provoked reminiscences and appreciations of a kind usually reserved for a head of state or former prime minister”, the New Statesman observed. (Leader, ‘That missing voice of the future,’ New Statesman, August 15, 2005)

This was true enough, with one important caveat. Cook’s death provoked the kind of reminiscences reserved for +favoured+ heads of state and allies of the West, not for the heads of “rogue states”, or for leaders of the vast mass of “unpeople” in the Third World. Death among the former is deemed particularly tragic – sufficiently so, indeed, to preclude honest analysis and critical thought as unacceptable breaches of taste.

Even the most basic standards of honesty were unthinkable when former president Ronald Reagan died in June 2004. On the BBC’s Newsnight programme, presenter Gavin Esler described Reagan as “a man who was loved even by his political opponents in this country [America] and abroad”. (Esler, Newsnight, June 9, 2004)

In a Leader entitled, ‘A rose-tinted president,’ the Guardian editors wrote:

“What is beyond doubt is that Mr Reagan made America feel good about itself again. He was… ‘the first truly cheerful conservative’. He gave American conservatism a humanity and hope that it never had in the Goldwater or Nixon eras.” (Leader, ‘A rose-tinted president,’ The Guardian, June 7, 2004)

This was an interesting, but hardly sane, comment on a man who had brought unimaginable suffering to Latin America, among other places. (See our two-part Media Alert: http://www.medialens.org/alerts/04/040610_Reagan_Visions_1.HTM and http://www.medialens.org/alerts/04/040615_Reagan_Visions_2.HTM)

Tony Blair’s New Labour project has always been about selling a ruthless, right-wing corporate agenda as something called “centre-left” politics. A founding architect of this deceptive strategy was Robin Cook. As Blair took office in 1997, Cook famously promised a new, ethical foreign policy:

“We will not permit the sale of arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression or international aggression.” (Quoted, Ian Black, ‘Cook gives ethics priority,’ The Guardian, May 13, 1997)

This would be part of New Labour’s determination to do nothing less than “put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy,” Cook claimed. (Ibid)

This was a hugely influential component of Blair’s “new dawn” of enlightened politics, one that would indeed have represented a revolutionary departure from tradition. The historical record shows that since 1945 Conservative and Labour governments have pursued almost identical foreign policies, with all consistently subordinating human rights to profit and power.

Cook was the ideal person to sell Blair’s ‘vision’. In 1978, a young Robin Cook had lambasted the British arms trade, noting that “it is a truism that every war for the past two decades has been fought by poor countries with weapons supplied by rich countries”. (Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p.140)

He added:

“The current sale of [British] Hawk aircraft to Indonesia is particularly disturbing as the purchasing regime is not only repressive but actually at war on two fronts” in East Timor and West Papua. And as the Hawk could “carry a weapon load of 5,600 lb no one need pretend that such a plane will not have a devastating potential against secessionist movements who have no air cover of their own”. (Ibid, p.140 and 141)

These were admirable comments – armed by Britain and the United States, the Indonesian government was in the process of committing genocide in East Timor. It was a slaughter that would eventually claim the lives of 200,000 people, or one-third of the population.

Sixteen years later, on May 11 1994, Cook was still attacking the Tory government, asking trade minister, Richard Needham, to provide “assurances” that Hawks approved for sale would not be used in East Timor. (Ibid, p.142) Cook reminded Needham:

“He will be aware that Hawk aircraft have been observed on bombing runs in East Timor in most years since 1984.” (Quoted, Pilger, ‘A worse slaughter,’ New Statesman, June 1, 1999)

Remarkably, just six months later (November 17, 1994), the verbatim parliamentary report, Hansard, records Cook defending Labour’s decision to sell Hawks to the Indonesian regime under prime minister Harold Wilson. These were, after all, “trainers” Cook said, sold “on the clear understanding” that they would not be used for any other purpose. Moreover, there was no evidence “whatever” that they had been used in East Timor. (Quoted, Pilger, Hidden Agendas, op. cit, p.142)

The difference was that in the intervening months Cook had been made shadow foreign secretary.

In September 1999, Cook continued with the same line of deception in a speech to a British audience:

“Let’s put a myth to rest. Your government has not sold weapons that would suppress democracy or freedom. We rejected every licence to Indonesia when the weapons might have been used for suppression.” (‘Robin Cook’s full speech,’ The Guardian, September 28, 1999)

Even as he spoke, three more Hawks were being delivered to Jakarta. In New Labour’s first year in office, Britain was the biggest weapons supplier to Indonesia, with Blair approving eleven arms deals.

Complicity In Mass Killing

This same disconnect between lethal reality and benign propaganda is found wherever we look in Cook’s career as foreign secretary. Of Blair’s and Clinton’s assault on Serbia in 1999, he said:

“In Kosovo Europe witnessed the greatest persecution of a whole people since the days of Hitler or Stalin. We acted because the age of mass deportation and ethnic cleansing belongs to Europe’s past.” (Cook, ibid)

This was a grotesque distortion. Following the assault, NATO sources reported that not more than 2,000 people had been killed in Kosovo on all sides in the year prior to bombing. Indeed, far from averting a mass humanitarian crisis, it is clear that the NATO attack +caused+ a major escalation of killings and expulsions. The flood of refugees from Kosovo began immediately after NATO launched its attack.

Cook appears to have had sincere reservations about the results of his actions, but was willing to continue when his protests were swept aside. According to Dana Priest of the Washington Post, at one point Cook “questioned strikes on power lines affecting a large hospital in Belgrade. But the group [of US-UK political leaders] brought him around”. (Priest, ‘Bombing by Committee: France Balked at NATO Targets,’ Washington Post, September 20, 1999)

Cook said of the assault on Serbia:

“I think its [NATO's] credibility would have been undermined if we had failed to act in this case.” (Quoted, Mark Curtis, Web Of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p.141)

This sounds reasonable enough, until we consider the meaning of ‘credibility’ in this context. The partially declassified 1995 study of the US Strategic Command, STRATCOM, called “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence” stressed the need for credibility:

“It hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed…”. It was important for potential enemies to understand “That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked” and so this “should be a part of the national persona we project.” It is “beneficial” for our strategic posture if “some elements may appear to be potentially ‘out of control’”. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism, Pluto Press, 1999, p.145)

The consequences are indisputable and horrific, as John Pilger observed:

“Thousands of men, women and children, including those Kosovars NATO was claiming to ‘save’, would now be alive were it not for the post-cold-war machinations of American power, egged on by Blair, [defence minister] Robertson and Cook with their few ageing Harrier aircraft and squadrons of propagandists.” (Pilger, ‘Nothing in my 30 years of reporting wars compares with the present propaganda dressed as journalism,’ New Statesman, July 12, 1999)

On January 28, 2000 Cook commented on the ferocious Russian oppression of the Chechen people in a speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs:

“Russian conduct in Chechnya is unacceptable and has produced grave humanitarian suffering. Nor, without a political settlement, will it produce their own stated objective of defeating the terrorists.” (Quoted, Curtis, op. cit, p.163)

This rehearsed the standard official definition of “terrorists”: namely, anyone opposing the interests of the West and its allies (recall that, out of office, Cook had deemed the struggles in East Timor and West Papua “secessionist movements”). Channel 4 reported on February 23, 2000, that Cook, in talks with Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov, had said he “understood” Russia’s problems in Chechnya. Cook delivered Britain’s “frank concerns” over the conflict, but said it was “equally important that we retain a relationship with Russia that enables us to work together constructively”. (Ibid, p.164)

On the same day, the Guardian covered a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report noting that at least 62 people had been killed earlier that month when 100 Russian soldiers had systematically robbed and shot civilians on the southern outskirts of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in a two-day rampage. “This is the single worst massacre of civilians that we have documented so far,” HRW commented.

‘Ethical’ blather aside, Chechnya was “quite simply, off the radar screen”, at a Foreign Office focused on promoting “British interests in and relations with Russia”, historian Mark Curtis observed. (Ibid, p.163)

Of the US-UK sanctions that claimed one million Iraqi lives, Cook said in 2000:

“We must nail the absurd claim that sanctions are responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people.” (Ibid, p.164)

The claim was anything but absurd. In February 2001, Cook justified the intensified bombing of Iraq that month:

“Saddam alone is to blame for his people’s suffering. It is a myth that UN policy prevents the delivery of food and medicines. To export most goods to Iraq – including food, medicines, agricultural and educational equipment, and water and sanitation goods – it is simply necessary to notify the UN.” (Cook, ‘Why it is in the interest of the Iraqi people to bomb Saddam,’ Daily Telegraph, February 20, 2001)

This was mendacious propaganda of the very worst kind (see our interview with former UN assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday: http://www.medialens.org/articles/the_articles/articles_2001/iraqdh.htm). Politicians like Cook played a vital role in persuading the media to turn a blind eye to mass death, so keeping the awful truth from the British people at immeasurable cost to the Iraqi people.

In December 1998, Cook propagandised shamelessly on behalf of Clinton and Blair’s Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign against Iraq. Cook declared in the Observer:

“I want to spell out to the people of Britain why our forces are bravely risking their lives destroying Saddam’s threat to humanity. Our objective is to achieve by military action the disarmament Saddam will not allow the UN inspectors to carry out on the ground.” (Cook, ‘Saddam under fire: “Saddam represents an extraordinary evil of terror”,’ The Observer, December 20, 1998)

This was one of the key deceptions that allowed Bush and Blair to wage war in 2003. In reality, the Desert Fox attacks were the US-UK reward for Iraq cooperating in the destruction of 90-95% of its weapons of mass destruction between 1991-98, including 100% of its nuclear capability. By the time bombing began, Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed”, according to then chief UN (Unscom) weapons inspector Scott Ritter. (Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, War On Iraq, Profile Books, 2002, p.23)

Using intelligence gained through CIA infiltration of Unscom, Desert Fox personally targeted Saddam Hussein, thus instantly destroying the inspections process. Ritter, noted that just prior to the strikes, Unscom was sent in to carry out sensitive inspections that “had nothing to do with disarmament but had everything to do with provoking the Iraqis. This was designed to generate a conflict that would justify a bombing”. (Quoted, New York Post, December 17, 1998)

Indeed the timing could not have been more personally fortuitous for Bill Clinton – the air strikes began the day before his impeachment referendum on the Monica Lewinsky affair was scheduled, and were called off two hours after the vote. US government sources had told Ritter three weeks earlier that “the two considerations on the horizon [are] Ramadan and impeachment”. (Ibid)

Hugo Young wrote in the Guardian of persuasive indications “that these really were, as most Arabs claimed, Monica’s Missiles”. (Hugo Young, ‘Britain should not act as a puppet of the US over Iraq. France doesn’t,’ The Guardian, January 28, 1999)

Young added:

“Blair and Robertson, with the old leftist Robin Cook alongside, almost embarrassed their European counterparts by the openness with which they played the role of spokesmen for the White House and the Pentagon.” (Ibid)

MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media

August 24, 2005


“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)

Media Coverage

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)

Luckhurst continued:

“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:http://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]

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