Parallels with the past never really work. Historical events are too specific to give themselves easily to analogy. But the coincidence of the 50th anniversary of the Suez crisis (Nasser nationalised the canal on 26 July 1956) and the latest outbreak of war holds some terrible lessons not so much in what is the same as in how much has changed over the past half-century.
The most obvious difference is in the extent to which the US has moved from an arms-length relationship with Israel under President Eisenhower, who threatened to withdraw all aid to Tel Aviv, and even get it expelled from the UN if it didn't withdraw its invading troops from Egypt, to President Bush, who has openly supported Israeli assault on Lebanon and refused to back calls for a ceasefire.
There is, too, as Douglas Hurd pointed out yesterday, a world of difference between the way the international community under the UN cohered around a peaceful settlement in 1957 and the position today, when UN efforts, as we can see from the discussions in Rome, hardly count.
But the greatest, and most dispiriting, difference between then and now lies in the reaction to war itself. In his address to the nation immediately after the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, Eisenhower - who, after all, had come to fame and position through war - utterly condemned the resort to violence. "In all the recent troubles in the Middle East," he said. "there have indeed been injustices suffered by all nations involved. But I do not believe that another instrument of injustice, war, is the remedy for these wrongs."
Richard Nixon later purportedly said that Eisenhower lived to regret condemning the allied invasion, but there is absolutely no evidence for this other than Nixon's word, and even this is dubious. Indeed, Eisenhower in his valedictory address on leaving office in 1961, warning of the power of the "military-industrial complex", re-emphasised his view with even greater vigour.
Now it seems to be taken for granted that war, the most terrible act that man can inflict on this planet, is the first recourse rather than the last, as if there was no alternative.
But there is an alternative. Instead of invading Iraq three years ago, we could have waited until the final report of the inspectors. And if the objective was regime change, then would it have really been impossible to have bribed, seduced or pressured such a change at a fraction of the $200bn that has been spent so far? Or could we not have ended Iraq's isolation and open it up to the kind of influences that brought down the Berlin Wall? It wasn't because there were no alternatives that we went to war. It was just that Bush, Blair and their supporters in the press never considered them.
And the same now with the Lebanese war. If the objective of the Israelis was really the emasculation of the Hizbollah and a secure border, then the incursion into Israeli territory to seize hostages was the perfect opportunity for a diplomatic squeeze. Given Hizbollah's strained relations with the Lebanese government, a UN resolution in place and an Arab world nervous of Iran and the Shia, it was the perfect occasion to rally the international community behind a concrete move to disarm Hizbollah and put in an international force to patrol the border - solutions which are likely, after all, to form the basis of any settlement now.
Instead Israel chose a course which has undermined the Lebanese government, made Hizbollah into heroic freedom fighters, further radicalise Arab politics and put the US firmly into the role of friend-of-Israel and enemy-of-the-Islamic world. On all the evidence so far, the Israeli cabinet never considered any other option than war, with an astonishing 90 per cent of support from a population not one of whom raised the question "Should we be doing this?" At least Suez saw a substantial questioning in the UK.
So, too, with the situation as it has developed to date. There is a viable alternative to letting the war go on until Israel feels it has done its worst, and that is to call an immediate ceasefire. All this talk from Condoleezza Rice, that you cannot call a halt to fighting until an overarching peace can be envisaged, is just specious nonsense - obscene, in fact, when you consider the loss of life and the destruction of Lebanon it entails.
Of course, you can call a halt to the fighting before talking. That is how such wars have ended through the ages. Eisenhower did it in 1956, and America could do it now with the same threats that Eisenhower employed. If Bush, with Blair in support, prefers not rein in Israel, it isn't because he doesn't see the means. It's because he doesn't want to. The question the public should be asking is "why not?".Reuse content