NORMALLY you would be looking at Robin Cook for a moment or two before the word heroic popped into your mind. Perhaps it is that beard, a facial outcrop that suggests not so much hirsute manliness as the gaudier sort of novelty garden gnome.

He is a funny looking chap, but we are probably all that to someone or other. Until this week, he was known variously for his brilliant political mind (according to those who measure these things), an affair with his secretary that ended his near 30-year marriage, a humiliating demotion from the post of Foreign Secretary, and a well-regarded spell as leader of the House Of Commons, which finished this week.

On Monday, Mr Cook tried on the hero's jumper. It didn't quite fit and was a little long in the arms, but he wore the vestment with pride.

His resignation over the war on Iraq was a rare moment of political dignity in these times. Mr Cook said he had to leave the Cabinet because the looming war had neither "international agreement nor domestic support", and because Britain was "being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading member".

His reasons were principled and sensible - and a cause to cheer even for critics of his stance. Many of us may think Mr Cook was right in what he said, yet there was another important aspect to his resignation: he stepped down on a matter of passionate principle.

He wasn't pushed - he jumped because he disagreed with the way Tony Blair was leading the country into a war without international sanction. By leaping from the Government barge, he landed on the tow-path £70,000 the poorer, according to some reports. This was an impressive sacrifice, especially from a man who was said to be too attached to the trappings of power to resign.

Compare and contrast, if you will, with Clare Short, the International Development Secretary. Ms Short made great play of her doubts over her leader's position on Iraq, saying in a radio interview that she felt Tony Blair was being "reckless with our government, reckless with his own future, position and place in history. It's extraordinarily reckless. I'm very surprised by it".

And what did Ms Short do after Robin Cook showed the way for the doubters in the Cabinet? Did she put on her inflatable arm-bands and follow Mr Cook down the gangplank to take a principled dive? Did she heck. She considered her position overnight, and then promptly walked away from the jutting piece of wood and skulked back into Tony's pro-war bunker.

As this American war rolls on, the only true concern should be for the beleaguered people of Iraq. It remains true that Saddam Hussein has been a catastrophe for his country and that his removal would be good for ordinary Iraqis, so long as they are not obliterated from the sky in the process.

The morality debate in the media has seen many impassioned, and impressive, pleas by those who believe the war is justified on humanitarian grounds. Many such arguments have swayed me for a moment, but in the end some of us just can't help reverting back to our peacenik ways, even on a stark day such as this.

Surely it would have been better if the international community had helped the Iraqi people to dispose of their leader, rather than have this war run to an American political agenda.

And what will happen afterwards? Will Iraq be allowed to find its feet and future, or will George Bush follow the usual American pattern of reckless interference?

It's fingers crossed time for the world.

Updated: 10:21 Thursday, March 20, 2003