The ceasefire in Lebanon is holding, if only by a thread, which makes it all the more unacceptable that there was so much reluctance on the part of the British government to call for it from the outset. By procrastinating, the government found itself ranged against Kofi Annan, its own party and the majority of the British people.
While there was no ceasefire, many Lebanese and Israelis were killed or wounded. While there was no ceasefire, the infrastructure of Lebanon was obliterated, Hizbollah gained in stature and the Israeli government was weakened. Who would dare say that the Middle East is now a safer, more stable place than it was before the fighting began?
A ceasefire was not just the right thing to do – it was the only sensible thing to do. A ceasefire was rooted in principle and pragmatism. The government’s failure to understand this was a major misjudgment, but we should not be surprised. It reflects, albeit in a lower key, the misjudgment of military action against Iraq. It springs from the Prime Minister’s evangelical view of foreign policy.
Foreign affairs is a world of relative values; it is no place for evangelism, which elevates belief over knowledge, conviction over judgment and instinct over understanding. In the Middle East, knowledge, judgment and understanding are more useful allies than belief, conviction and instinct, particularly when all three are wrong.
The real argument over the Iraq adventure is not about its impact on the opinions of the Muslims living in Britain, but that it was wrong in conception and execution. The same evangelical impulse lumps together different situations that present different problems and require different solutions.
‘Axis of evil’ and ‘an arc of extremism’ are lazy descriptions of complex problems, as if you can solve them more easily by describing them more simply, as if a soundbite description will allow a soundbite solution.
There is a real threat from Muslim fundamentalism, but it takes many forms and arises for many reasons. If you do not understand or accept its variety, and treat all examples of extremism as if they were the same, you make it harder to deal with and end up playing into the hands of its advocates.
By seeing disparate elements of extremism as a global conspiracy, you grant extremists the status and legitimacy they crave. What better reward for jihadists than to have their criminality and callous disregard for life described in their own apocalyptic language.
This is reinforced by what appears to be indifference to the plight of the nearly 1,000 killed, thousands injured and hundreds of thousands removed from their homes and livelihoods in Lebanon. Many now believe that the failure to condemn the military action as disproportionate and the argument that a ceasefire had to be ‘sustainable’ unnecessarily prolonged hostilities.
The government’s endorsement of the United States position has yet again done us terrible damage in Europe, the Middle East and throughout the world. Who would have thought that a senior UN official would want to discourage the Prime Minister from active participation in diplomatic efforts because he was compromised by the UK’s position? Who would have thought that on this occasion, Kofi Annan, on whose behalf Jack Straw intervened not that long ago when he was under severe pressure from the Bush administration, would not get unequivocal British support? Margaret Beckett’s discomfort was both palpable and understandable.
It was often argued that the relationship between George W Bush and the Prime Minister was based on the latter’s pragmatic view that support in public gave influence in private. The government allowed this understanding to be given wide currency.
But it is now clear from leaked documents from the period between 9/11 and military action against Iraq that Tony Blair and the President share the same view of the world. One should hesitate to call the Prime Minister a neocon, but in foreign affairs, how else can one concisely define him?
His own party does not like this, the people of the United Kingdom don’t like it much and it does not serve British interests. Churchill and Roosevelt, Macmillan and Kennedy, Thatcher and Reagan are all examples of close and productive personal relationships between President and Prime Minister, but can anyone envisage the British half of these partnerships being so in thrall to presidential thinking as Blair has been to Bush?
The British-American relationship needs to be rebalanced. Such a rebalancing cannot happen until after Bush and Blair have gone. Such a recantation from the Prime Minister would be as significant as that of Thomas Cranmer’s. In any event, Bush is about to enter the last quarter of his time at the White House, but that does not mean that nothing can be done.
Those in all parties who believe in a rules-based system of foreign relations, who recognise the unfulfilled possibilities of greater European co-operation in foreign affairs, who reject a Milton-like struggle between good and evil can begin by preparing the ground now.
Over one issue in particular, effort must be made – Israel/Palestine. As the Lebanese government was being chastised for its failure to implement Security Council Resolution 1559, calling for the disarmament of Hizbollah, little was said about Resolution 242, calling for Israel’s withdrawal from territories it had occupied in 1967. As long as the Palestinians are subject to daily humiliations and settlements are expanded on the West Bank, all in breach of international law, and denied a viable homeland, Israel’s legal and moral right to live in peace behind secure and recognised borders will be undermined. Israel/Palestine should become not a cause but an obsession. If it redefines our relationship with the United States, so be it.