- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

THE POINT OF DEPARTURE: WHY ONE OF BRITAIN’S LEADING POLITICIANS RESIGNED OVER TONY BLAIR’S DECISION TO GO TO WAR IN IRAQ

By Robin Cook

Simon & Schuster, $27, 368 pages.

As resignation letters go, Robin Cook’s account of his decision to leave Tony Blair’s government over the invasion of Iraq is defiant stuff. It is easy to see why the soft-left veteran, who served as foreign secretary before being demoted to leader of the House of Commons, has emerged as one of the British prime minister’s most persistent antiwar critics.

In some ways, Mr. Cook is a sympathetic figure. An experienced parliamentarian and a ruthless debater, he is a victim of our insidious television culture, a realm where looks and sound-bites are all-important.

His rhetorical skills, which would have attracted crowds in the age of William Gladstone, do not really lend themselves to bullet points. Since he is short, red-haired and bearded, the tabloid press has enjoyed comparing him to that archetypal British suburban figure of fun, the garden gnome.

When, amid much press gossip, he left his wife for a younger woman, he instantly became a soap-opera villain. Mr. Cook sensibly passes over all of the domestic upheaval in a book that is part diary, part memoir. Yet he still has some telling points to make about the British media’s appetite for sensation over substance.

For all his love of Parliament, he is also frustrated with the institution’s obsession with outdated ritual. Much of the early part of the book is taken up with his quixotic efforts to reform procedure, especially in the House of Lords. American readers will not need to linger over this section.

It goes without saying that Iraq is the real story. Anyone who wonders how Tony Blair came to be so isolated from the Labor Party mainstream will receive a brisk crash course here.

Mr. Cook lays out the pro-containment policy with all the dexterity you would expect. He speaks with the voice of a Kerry Democrat, long on multilateralist rhetoric and one-world sentiment, but distinctly unconvincing on whether he has the right stuff to lead the war on terror.

It is not even clear whether Mr. Cook believes there is a war to be fought in the first place. He spends a great deal of time agonizing over Mr. Blair’s motives for supporting George W. Bush. Is it because he wants to keep some influence over Uncle Sam? Is it simply due to his fixation with sucking up to the rich and powerful?

The book certainly makes some valid criticisms of the British government’s ill-judged presentation of the threat posed by Saddam’s programs of weapons of mass destruction.

What does not seem to occur to Mr. Cook — remarkably enough, considering that he used to be in charge of foreign policy — is that September 11 marked a new phase in history. Reading his diary entry for that momentous day, you cannot help noticing that he spends much more time describing a country outing with his aged mother.

At first, you can give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that — as he writes after a meeting with the American ambassador — “too many words diminish the emotional response, which for once is best expressed by empathetic silence.” Before long, however, the silence grows deafening.

To him, Osama bin Laden is much less of a worry than the trigger-happy neoconservatives. At one point, Mr. Cook lambastes Richard Perle’s performance on a post-September 11 BBC discussion involving a satellite link with members of the public in New York and Pakistan. Mr. Perle is depicted as the guilty party, carelessly tossing bellicose threats in all directions.

Now, I happened to see that same program, and there is no question that, whatever Mr. Cook claims, the middle-class folk sitting in the Pakistani studio were anything but “reasonable.”

But then Mr. Cook would rather blame Americans for all the world’s problems. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gets a sympathetic walk-on part as she tells the author that voices of reason in the United States are being drowned out by warmongers wrapped in the stars and stripes.

For the most part, however, Mr. Cook sees the world through the prism of the old, pro-disarmament left. Tony Blair, when he was much younger, took a similar view.

However, he eventually grew up, which is why we are lucky he is prime minister. Mr. Cook is a decent man and a good writer, but he lives in a world that no longer exists.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London.

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