Two Resignations, One Great Loss

This is a tale of two resignations, both calculated political moves, one of which was heroic; and of one great loss to the world, and to progressives and socialists in particular.

Bibi, Ariel, and Gaza

So Netanyahu has resigned from the Sharon government. He claims that it’s a matter of principle, that he disagrees so strongly with Sharon’s plan to pull out of Gaza that he can no longer serve. But his disagreement with the plan was not so strong as to force him to vote against it.

Mr. Netanyahu, who has opposed the pullout but voted for it anyway, came late to the cabinet meeting and seemed nervous, other ministers said. He said he was there but did not want to be, would vote against the pullout and then put a letter of resignation down in front of Mr. Sharon and began to leave the room. One Likud ally, Tzachi Hanegbi, said, “But don’t you have any explanation for us?” Mr. Netanyahu answered: “All my explanations are in the letter.”

He later apparently reinterpreted his actions:

Netanyahu said his resignation letter counted as a vote against the pullout plan and told reporters that the plan would harm Israeli security and could intensify Palestinian attacks.

So I guess he voted for the pullout before he voted against it.

In fact, of course, everyone knows what Bibi’s goal is.

Clearly Mr. Netanyahu decided to gamble now and try to wrest the party from Mr. Sharon. The current government is a wide coalition that survives on the votes of the left-wing Labor Party, which supports the pullout plan while criticizing Mr. Netanyahu’s economic neo-liberalism as hurting the society’s poorest and most vulnerable members. After the pullout, it was always doubtful that Labor would remain in the government for long. The Netanyahu resignation is likely to accelerate the fall of the government and bring about even earlier elections, which are formally scheduled for November of 2006.

What’s the difference between Netanyahu and Chalabi? Honesty or ambition? Hah. Education? They both studied at MIT. Certainly not religion; in both cases the religion is self. The differences are intelligence, adaptability, and context.

Robin Cook

All this is meant as prologue to my real topic: the courage and brilliance of a fine public servant who died yesterday, Robin Cook. This was a man who believed in things and operated on his principles. He didn’t just put his career on the line for what he believed, he knew he was giving it up by stating those beliefs at a critical moment. If we had one Robin Cook for every hundred thousand citizens, it’d be a fine world. If we had just one Robin Cook in Congress or the administration, we’d be a lot better off than we are now.

Of course the Guardian, for which he often wrote, has full details of his life and untimely death at 59. Tributes are coming from sources likely and unlikely.

[UN Secretary-General Kofi] Annan’s spokesman acknowledged his “exceptional intellect, eloquence, vision and passion in the domestic and international arenas alike”. The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, hailed him as “the greatest parliamentarian of his generation.”

Even Condi called him a “passionate defender of human freedom and dignity”.

The Guardian has posted a list of his columns, each of them incisive, progressive, tightly argued, and to my mind correct. Even those who disagreed with him and found him prickly feared to debate him, because he was smart and right and he argued fairly. As John Kampfner puts it,

There was something about Cook that unnerved lesser minds. There was something about him that unnerved those of similar minds.

My kinda guy.


As Kampfner says,

Cook was alternately warm and offhand, intellectually impressive but strangely lacking in strategic sense. [Or perhaps strategy was not the point to him.—CED] He knew he was capable of terrible put-downs, and wished it otherwise. He knew he should have made shrewder alliances, but did not seem to care enough to change.

And yet, for all his personal foibles, he did more than perhaps any single politician of his generation to restore faith in the profession. He was a man of deep conviction, a man who would compromise only under duress. An evening with him—copiously supplied with malt whisky—was always invigorating. Conversation with him was intellectually stimulating. I know precious few among his profession who on that score come close.

And here’s Roy Hattersley:

His reputation, and his memory, have both … been immensely enhanced by resignation from the government. In an age of blatant political cynicism, even men and women who supported the war in Iraq applauded his decision to put principle ahead of his prospects of continuing in high office. And Robin’s determination to follow where conscience led had added impact because it was unexpected. There was so much talk about his ability that his convictions were often overlooked.

Michael White, the Guardian’s political editor, recalls that

he used to tell audiences interested in electoral reform or green politics that if Margaret Thatcher represented “strong government, I don’t want to be part of strong government”. This is not an attitude that most ambitious politicians share.

Back in November I commented on one of his articles, in which he argued that the UK should reconsider the “special relationship”:

Throughout the Bush-Sharon years the perspectives of Europe and the US on the conflict have been drifting apart. The EU has been the principal donor to the Palestinians, and Washington has been the chief supplier of Israeli armaments. Repeatedly, we have witnessed buildings put up with euros demolished by tanks provided by dollars. It is hard to see those differing perspectives narrowed after an election in which Bush owed his victory to millions of evangelical Christians who believe the second coming will be postponed if Israel gives up its biblical lands.

Resignation Speech

If you follow only one link from this post, please make it this one, to Cook’s magnificent resignation speech. Here are some excerpts.

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 programme and halted Saddam’s medium and long-range missiles programmes.

Iraq’s military strength is now less than half its size than at the time of the last Gulf war.

Ironically, it is only because Iraq’s military forces are so weak that we can even contemplate its invasion. Some advocates of conflict claim that Saddam’s forces are so weak, so demoralised 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.

Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create?

His analysis then prefigures our condition today.

I have heard it said that Iraq has had not months but 12 years in which to complete disarmament, and that our patience is exhausted.

Yet it is more than 30 years since resolution 242 called on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.

We do not express the same impatience with the persistent refusal of Israel to comply.

I welcome the strong personal commitment that the prime minister has given to middle east peace, but Britain’s positive role in the middle east does not redress the strong sense of injustice throughout the Muslim world at what it sees as one rule for the allies of the US and another rule for the rest.

“A committed socialist,” according to the New York Times, he believed in democracy in the true sense: he trusted his fellow citizens.

The longer that I have served in this place, the greater the respect I have for the good sense and collective wisdom of the British people.

On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain.

They want inspections to be given a chance, and they suspect that they are being pushed too quickly into conflict by a US Administration with an agenda of its own.

From the BBC’s report on the speech:

Robin Cook has won an unprecedented standing ovation in the House of Commons after telling MPs why he resigned from the government over the looming war with Iraq.

The BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, called Mr Cook’s performance “without doubt one of the most effective brilliant resignation speeches in modern British politics”.

He said MPs applauding one another was “simply not done” and there were “pretty sick faces” among the ministers on the front bench.

That was a man.

Robin, we already miss you. We wuz robbed.

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