A free gun with every lecture on human rights?

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The Independent Online
What on earth has happened to Robin Cook? Liberal, thoughtful, intellectual, he stood out among New Labour's front-bench team in the run-up to the general election. His appointment as Foreign Secretary in May appeared to signal a new era in Britain's relations with the world; it looked as though our foreign policy might now be guided by ethics instead of crude considerations of trade. It seemed likely that the government would prevent British companies selling arms to anyone with a large chequebook, regardless of their record on human rights or their genocidal policies towards their neighbours.

That hope was dashed last month when Cook announced that existing arms deals with Indonesia would be allowed to go ahead. As well as having a disgraceful human rights record at home, President Suharto's government has murdered thousands of people in East Timor, which it illegally occupied in 1975. Nevertheless, the Indonesians will soon be taking delivery of 16 Hawk trainer aircraft, 50 Alvis armoured cars and Tactica water cannon from Britain. The government, pushed onto the defensive, talked about the difficulty of overturning existing deals. But a much more important point was at issue. If Cook's ethical foreign policy was elastic enough to sanction arms sales to the Suharto government, it was difficult to visualise a regime vile enough to be disqualified from dealing with British companies.

On Friday morning, when he met Suharto in Jakarta, Cook tried to save face by outlining the new criteria on arms exports from Britain which will come into force next month. These include open meetings with human rights leaders in repressive countries, scholarships in Britain for future "opinion-formers" to study civil liberties, and places on Oxford University's course on international human rights law. This shows a touching, though probably misplaced, faith in the power of education. But it was the final item in the six-point plan - an offer of a lecture series by senior British police officers on effective and non-confrontational crowd control at demonstrations - which took my breath away.

We are going to help the Indonesian police control demonstrations against the regime's brutal practices at home and in East Timor? If this really is our new policy on arms exports, British companies could well begin selling swords to the Saudis, as long as a few lessons in humane beheading are thrown in free.

But it's not just on the arms sales issue that Robin Cook's conduct is profoundly disappointing. I'm not talking about his personal life, although the break-up of his marriage could hardly have been more ineptly handled, but about his emerging style as Foreign Secretary. Another change I looked forward to after the election was that British foreign policy might break free from the macho posturing indulged in by some of his Conservative predecessors.

Not a bit of it. In Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, Cook declared war on international drug barons, lecturing an audience which included the Malaysian foreign minister, Abdullah Badawi, about "bearing down on this scourge as never before". No one present seems to have challenged this last phrase, which begged the question of what George Bush's administration was up to in the late 1980s when it embarked on a much-publicised campaign to crush supply routes to the United States. Bush's rhetoric was much the same, his expenditure much higher than anything the cash-strapped British government can possibly afford, and the results pathetic. After years of destroying crops, seizing boats and shooting down planes, the number of heroin addicts in the United States is rising again. The State Department's latest report on its international drugs strategy admits that 2 million Americans are hooked on cocaine. And what new weapon does our Foreign Secretary intend to deploy in this failed crusade? The answer is a bunch of under- employed British spies, or what the Times comically described as "the full intelligence resources of MI6".

Never mind that their domestic counterparts are apparently unable to tell the difference between Jack Straw and a dangerous subversive. Britain is plunging in where other, rich nations have failed and someone, somewhere is probably compiling a guide on how to spot traffickers. Here are a few tips: look out for men with lots of money, foreign accents, gold jewellery and names like Carlos.

The most striking thing about Cook's announcement, in common with most of the government's recent initiatives on drugs, is its air of doomed bravado. At a moment when a consensus against prohibition is forming in this country, consisting of people from diverse backgrounds who have reached the conclusion that our drugs laws are immoral and/or unworkable, Tony Blair's government is thinking of extending them to a variety of herbal substances such as skullcap.

This just goes to show that, however much he hangs out with members of Oasis, Blair has failed to grasp the extent to which recreational drugs are a routine feature of youth culture. "We must deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be," warned Ron Clarke, former deputy head of the Manchester drugs squad, in an article calling for the legalisation of drugs in Thursday's Daily Mail. Wouldn't it be better, he asked, if Ecstasy was manufactured "properly and safely in approved laboratories so that if youngsters insist on trying it they are at least at no risk of killing themselves?" I doubt if many people would have predicted, six months ago, that New Labour would turn out to be more repressive on this subject than the Daily Mail.

I have to admit I'm worried about the Princess of Wales. Twice in recent weeks she's broken the cardinal rule for women who want to be icons, which is that they're not supposed to speak in public. (Gore Vidal memorably described Jackie Onassis, who knew better than to talk to journalists, as "the last great silent movie star".)

Diana's new strategy, on view during the row over her Le Monde interview, consists of making a sensational remark and then denying it in hurt tones. A classic example of having your cake and eating it, which brings me back to Robin Cook's arms sales policy...

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