Blair is wrong on Lebanon

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — Opinion polls show that a large majority of Britons believe that the British government should have sided with the U.N. secretary general and other countries in demanding an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. There is also increasing disquiet in Britain at the way Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly supports U.S. President George W. Bush in his backing of Israel.

The British public does not dispute Israel’s right to defend itself. The Hezbollah rocket attacks that have killed and maimed Israeli citizens and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers from Israeli territory by Hezbollah guerrillas operating from Lebanon were outrageous acts and could not be ignored by any government. But has the Israeli response been proportionate?

The majority in Britain do not think so. Why, people ask, has it been necessary for the Israelis to inflict such losses on the ordinary people of Lebanon? Shouldn’t Israel have restricted its action to attacks on Hezbollah rocket sites and strongholds? Couldn’t Israel have given an ultimatum to the Lebanese government and allowed a pause while civilians moved out of the danger zone?

The Israeli response seems to be that Hezbollah, which is part of Lebanon’s government, is so well dug in that if its power is to be destroyed, its cells and headquarters must be attacked without warning or pause even if there are collateral casualties. The Israelis do have a case, but to many observers they do not seem to have exercised sufficient care to prevent unnecessary casualties and damage.

If Hezbollah could be quickly destroyed and peace restored in Lebanon, some of the criticism that Israel’s action has attracted would probably be less vociferous, but so far the Israeli attacks do not seem to have prevented further Hezbollah rocket attacks. Hezbollah’s apparently successful defiance of Israel has given it a propaganda coup in Arab countries.

The fear is that as the destruction in Lebanon proceeds, anti-Israel, anti-American and anti-British sentiment will be fueled, and al-Qaida and its terrorist allies will be strengthened. An immediate ceasefire would, its supporters argue, give an opportunity for reflection and allow calmer counsels to prevail.

But would Hezbollah accept a ceasefire at this stage and agree to the minimum conditions that Israel would inevitably demand? These would surely involve the return of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers and an undertaking by Hezbollah to disarm. Israel cannot feel secure while Hezbollah maintains rocket launching sites in Lebanon and continues to receive new rockets from Syria and Iran.

The proposal to establish a U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon may be the only way forward toward a lasting peace, but it will be difficult to organize and it will take months to put together an effective force. Countries are unlikely to be willing to provide contingents without assurances that their forces will not be subject to attack from Hezbollah guerrillas, and it is hard to see how such a force can be established in Lebanon as long as Hezbollah refuses to give up its weapons.

This means that Syria and Iran will need to become involved, but will Iran, whose extremist president has vowed to destroy Israel and who wants to divert attention from Iranian plans for the possible development of atomic weapons, be willing to support the proposed U.N. peacekeeping force?

The crisis in Lebanon and America’s overt support for Israel, combined with U.S. failure to demand that Israel exercise greater restraint and do more to minimize civilian casualties, have led to a significant increase in British criticism of U.S. Mideast policies.

The worsening situation in Iraq and the problems in Afghanistan are put down to the failures of American policy. Iraq, where 132,000 U.S. troops are engaged, is seen as another example of American overreach, and comparisons are inevitably made with Vietnam. U.S. President George W. Bush is seen as inarticulate, insensitive and incompetent. The way in which he and American policies are viewed probably does not do justice to him or the U.S. government, and it is, of course, a serious mistake to identify Bush and the neocons of the Republican Party with America.

We need to recognize, however, that there is much American criticism of Washington’s foreign policy and of Bush. Many Americans, while sympathetic to Israel, have real concerns about the handling of the crisis in the Middle East by their government in ways that can only complicate global efforts to combat Islamic terrorism.

Those in Britain who see Blair as a lapdog of Bush are not necessarily anti-American. Indeed, most intelligent British observers recognize the importance of close relations with the United States and the role that the U.S. must of necessity, as the sole superpower, play in the modern world. But they do not understand what Britain has gained from Blair’s unflagging support of American policies, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or Lebanon. The relationship is seen as an unequal one, as in the one-sided extradition agreement with the U.S. that only Britain has ratified.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a firm supporter of the U.S. alliance and a friend of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. This did not prevent her from having public disagreements with him. The Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson wisely refused to send British forces to support the Americans in the Vietnam war. This had no long-term effects on the relationship with the U.S.

Why, people ask, can’t Blair occasionally show an independent spirit? The suspicion is that he actually believes that Bush’s policies are wise and right.