There is nothing predictable about the Middle East except for the
anguished cries of commentators who bemoan the latest war crime, the
latest roadmap to some tolerable truce and the latest terrorist outrage
carried out by the Militant Tendency, if you believe BBC understatement.
As the Israeli campaign has ground on and Hezbollah has cowered within
its civilian camouflage, a chorus of "What is to be done?" has permeated
our newspapers and television screens.
Such cries of help are usually the stimulus for Tony Blair to add his
ha'penny voice to the international great and the good that gather at
emergency conferences, writing resolutions that will solve wars,
insurgencies and genocides. But if, like the Darfur genocide, these
problems prove too intractable for their talking shops, the diplomatic
caravanserai will migrate towards a more welcoming watering hole. Her
Majesty's Government made noises on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
some three years ago, when Blair organised a conference, hoping that his
Belfast triumph might magically transpose to the Middle East through the
wand of British diplomacy. Alas, like all such endeavours, this
conference was sucked into the sands and never heard of again.
Postwar British governments have never had much luck in the Middle East.
The fiftieth anniversary of Suez has proved an opportune moment for many
to reminisce on our most disastrous intervention of all. We were allied
with the Israelis and the French in a clever plan to seize back the Suez
Canal, a strategic waterway run by a privately owned company based in
Paris that was sequestered by Nasser, the dictator of Egypt, so that he
could dam the Nile and posture as an Arab champion. The United States of
America, under President Eisenhower, broke Great Britain and France in
what has possibly proved to be the superpower's most foolish foreign
policy decision since 1945. This spelt an end to most independent
military action on our part and left France as an estranged onlooker,
increasingly embittered and striving to undermine US dominance in favour
of a multipolar world.
Yet, even when this was combined with the ratchet effect of relative
decline, British foreign policy has appeared distinctive through
delusions of influence over the United States. Harold Macmillan
described a comfort blanket of Athenian guidance to Kennedy's Rome.
Margaret Thatcher waved her handbag at Ronald Reagan and talked Hayek
and bombs. Such interventions always had a certain effect, but
Atlanticists have exaggerated history, knowing full well that we are
regarded as a second rate ally, a useful tool, but no more so than
Germany, Japan or Israel. Great Britain needs a dose of realism in our
special relationship with America now that Blair has proved a disastrous
Realism is one thing that you also will not find in reports on wars or
diplomacy. Truthfully, we just do not know what is going on in Beirut or
in Number Ten. Tony Blair was gravely damaged by his inept conversation
with President Bush, where his old instincts for diplomatic intervention
came to the fore. His silence, and the silence of other Ministers, on
the issue of a ceasefire and a peacekeeping force, could be genuine
disdain for a war that has already exacted political costs. Or he may
have nothing to contribute to an international peacekeeping force as the
military pot is empty. Our troops, overstretched in Iraq and
Afghanistan, could not be redeployed to Lebanon. Blair, without the boys
to back him up, kept mum until the Cabinet pressure cooker required a UN
release. He was watching his performance in 2003, since the Iraqi rerun
on Friday was a conference with Bush to draft a UN resolution.
We should be grateful that Blair is unable to commit us a third theatre
of war. The Israelis have proved very careless with the lives of
Lebanese civilians because they are unwilling to re-enter one of their
military nightmares: the occupation of Lebanon. Nor will the United States
entertain the idea of their troops participating in a peacekeeping
force. On October 23rd, 1983, 220 US Marines were killed in their
barracks at Beirut Airport by a suicide bomber whilst keeping the peace.
The Marines were joined in death by 58 French paratroopers through a
second suicide bomber.
If such a peacekeeping force is toothless, then Hezbollah will ignore it
and concentrate upon its immediate goals: terrorist incursions, rocket
attacks and insurgency within northern Israel. If the peacekeeping force
is strong enough to enforce the ceasefire, then Hezbollah may well turn
on them, using proxies to strike and kill the soldiers of whatever
country was foolish enough to commit them to the maelstrom. Then they
can take up their favourite pastime of firing rockets from someone's
backyard, hiding in the civilian population.
Blair moves in time to the American drum, and is accused of poodleism.
If he did have a foreign policy of his own, then he would prove more
vocal in his attacks of the Israelis, pandering to a domestic audience
by burnishing his internationalist credentials. Then, he would do
nothing except hold a conference and talk about a truce. The outcome is
the same whether countries are allies of Israel or internationalist
critics. They can do nothing without a ceasefire, and that lies within
the gift of two actors: Israel and Hezbollah.
Britain was an aggressive supporter of liberal internationalism under
Blair. Now, that distinctive strand of his politics is diminished, we are left
with the "special relationship", and a humiliating perception of
submission. From Trident to Iraq to the Natwest Three, Blair's
government has undermined our sense of worth and demeaned the alliance
that they consider the lynchpin of our security. Britain still lives in
a world of nation states. Britain still has strong armed forces and many
interests throughout the world: emigrants, daughter nations and
(Cross posted to Airstrip One)