Middle East crisis - Vision of Western power imploding

A boy stares from a bus window. His family has fled the fighting between Hizbollah and the Israeli army, and now he is on the road, somewhere in Lebanon. He is maybe four years of age; old enough to absorb horror but too young to analyse it. Such feelings are endemic in his land.

Many of the Hizbollah fighters who fire rockets today remember being four years old in an age of devastation. Their apprenticeship in loss and hatred began in 1982, when Israel’s invasion of Lebanon killed 19,000 people. Almost a quarter of a century on, the children of that war have come of age. This time, the battles echo round a global theatre. Britain is outraged by Tony Blair’s refusal to demand an instant end to Israel’s assault. Newspaper advertisements by charities, religious groups and the trade union, Unison, demand an urgent ceasefire. A letter bearing 6,000 signatures is handed in at 10 Downing Street.

According to an opinion poll in The Guardian, 61 per cent of Britons think Israel over-reacted to provocation, and 63 per cent say Blair is wrong to tie himself so closely to George Bush. Even on Iraq, there was no such groundswell. Fractured, uneasy Britain has found a cause round which to coalesce. A survey claimed that only 32 per cent of British Muslims had a favourable opinion of Jews.

In US, there is no such uprising. As few as seven per cent of citizens want their government to censure Ehud Olmert. As Paul Rogers of Bradford University, in the north of England, points out, the backing comes not from the Jewish lobby, which is uneasy, but from millions of Christian evangelicals for whom the Holy Land is sacred.

The British protest is a showdown over Blair’s long refusal to refute Bush’s belief in rocket-borne democracies. This time, he may lay down his political life for that creed and his opponents may gladly claim the sacrifice. Four days after 7/7, Bush pledged the US would fight “until victory is America’s and there is no enemy”. Now, as deaths rise in Afghanistan and Iraq, jihadists multiply where none existed. The original estimate of terrorists dangerous to the US was 500 to 1,000. Five years after 9/11, the notion that Bush can kill all whom he has helped to create is political delirium.

For the dying and displaced of Lebanon, an instant ceasefire is imperative. Arab alienation, the threat to regional and global stability and the future of Israel itself all ordain that the fighting must stop. No civilised country should demand less. And yet, there is something unsettling in the certitude of the protest.

As Bush and Blair have never learnt, conviction should have a small corner of doubt. This is mine. British campaigners, who will never watch their homes burn and their children perish, have the luxury of seeing clearly. That gives them a duty not only to support the Lebanese but to understand why 95 per cent of Israelis still support Olmert and why they have cause to be afraid. Israel effectively pulled out of Lebanon six years ago, yet Hizbollah never abandoned its crusade against the Israeli state.

Those who rail against Israel’s aggression are right. But they also risk playing a mirror image of Bush’s game. This is not another round in the conflict of good and evil, but a greyer conflict than the partisans of either side allow. It seems odd that Britons who distance themselves from their PM draw no distinction between Israeli citizens and their governing classes. There is a hint that the loathing of Israel’s policies is sliding into contempt for Israel itself.

Bushites believe Hizbollah can be wiped off the planet. Some Western liberals, almost as fancifully, hope its fighters can be easily disarmed and kept at bay by peacekeepers with teeth. Welcome to dreamland. This conflict will end, sooner or later, with some face-saving deal, but nothing will be the same again.

The disaster unfolding in Lebanon is not a tableau of imperial tyranny at work. It is the vision of Western power imploding. On the last available figures, the US spent an annual $422.5 billion on defence.

The remaining two “axis of evil” nations, North Korea and Iran, spent a combined $8.5 billion, or roughly two per cent. Yet the West is not winning its conventional wars against other states, let alone prevailing against terrorist groups. When politicians lose their compass, citizens can become the steersmen. That is why British protesters must stay united to press for better diplomacy, better intelligence-gathering and a foreign policy not designed to alienate half of the world. But critics losing faith in an obdurate PM may also have to question their own certitudes. Unless certainty is tempered with humility and humanity, the future is not hard to read. Look into the eyes of any four-year-old refugee, on any road to nowhere. And wonder what he will be if he grows up. — The Guardian