Leading Article: The real test for Mr Cook

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AS KOFI ANNAN arrived in Baghdad, the full panoply of Western military might, including three aircraft carriers, six destroyers, two cruisers, two guided-missile frigates and a couple of submarines, was already ranged against Iraq. Such an array of hardware always runs the risk of imposing its own remorseless logic on the crisis. If Mr Annan leaves Baghdad with a settlement just short of something acceptable to the United States, Britain may be propelled into military action which will divide public, politicians and the armed forces alike. One of Mr Annan's compromise proposals to resolve the row over the access of UN weapons inspectors to Saddam Hussein's presidential sites has acquired the Whitehall soubriquet of "UNSCOM-plus-suits", an arrangement under which the UNSCOM inspection team would be joined in their task by diplomatic colleagues.

Washington's enthusiasm for this is limited. Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, wants to secure an inescapable commitment from President Hussein to comply with the UN injunction to admit inspectors before talking about any practicalities. She does not want what is known in diplomatic circles as the "integrity" of the process compromised by the addition of politicians and diplomats. UNSCOM's scientists will, America believes, go, see and report back with the clarity of their training. Politicians and diplomats are susceptible to fudge and President Hussein is an old hand at exploiting signs of Western indecision. But Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, has made it equally clear that "UNSCOM-plus-suits" should be given a chance. Not least, he is anxious to improve the way the Government's handling of this crisis is being perceived. In Downing Street exasperation at newspaper reports on the suffering of the Iraqi people is barely disguised. "We are," said one source, "trying to get help to the people. He [Saddam Hussein] spends the money on gold bath tubs in his chemical weapons factories." This is an understandable frustration. Yet if the Government has failed to get its message across, it has only itself to blame. A convincing message as to why military action is necessary has not penetrated the propagandist fog. Foreign Office papers have been produced detailing how enemies of the regime were torn to pieces by the Iraqi leader's Doberman, and listing the dictator's stockpiles of Black Widow spider venom. But we need more convincing proof that it is a wise action to go to war. Meanwhile, a nagging doubt haunts the Foreign Office. One senior official has pointed out that the reason Saddam Hussein may be blocking palace inspections is that if he is given a clean bill of health by UNSCOM, his internal and external enemies would know he was not the danger he seems to be. This leaves Mr Cook in a complicated predicament at a defining moment for the Government. The vote in the Commons produced a rebellion less than half the strength of that over lone parents last year. But many who backed Mr Blair in the voting lobby have grave doubts. Take Dale Campbell- Savours, a respected backbencher who advanced an alternative strategy: securing a sanctions-free enclave around Basra which could be supplied by sea and could form the basis for a "free Iraq". Such ideas underline worries about a lack of clear strategy. There is also resentment at what left-wingers see as a Thatcherite willingness to kowtow to America.

In truth, mainstream Labour has always inclined to pro-Americanism, but the poor presentation of the policy allows it to seem as if Mr Blair has latched on to Lady Thatcher's coat-tails. This informs the second diplomatic difficulty between the US and Britain: Mr Cook's belief in the need for a new UN resolution to support military action, which the Americans do not see as necessary. Here the Foreign Secretary is thinking ahead. If a strike on Iraq produces defiance, rather than compliance, bombing might continue over a matter of weeks, testing the resolve of the international community, the public and Labour MPs. Without a new UN mandate, the rebellion could become a nightmare scenario: ineffectual military action and a disintegrating international and domestic coalition of support. In the next few days, patience and diplomacy can only highlight the allies' preference for peace and commitment to UN principles. Mr Cook must resist the forthright appeals of Mrs Albright.