Rupert Cornwell: Caught on a headlong flight from reality

Experts in the Middle East who urge caution are being dismissed as wimps
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Trust the French, who probably offer the last slim hope of escape from the Lebanon mess, to have the perfect words for American and British policy in the Middle East. In English, fuite en avant literally means "flight forward", but that doesn't convey a quarter of it. The Petit Robert defines a fuite en avant as the "acceleration of a process that is deemed necessary, although dangerous".

But that dry description doesn't do it justice either. The phrase carries the sense of riding the whirlwind, of doubling up your bets if you lose first time around - almost of a headlong flight from reality. And right now I can't think of a better term to denote what George Bush and Tony Blair have been up to in the interlocking crises of Iraq and Lebanon.

Funnily enough, both German and Italian have their versions of fuite en avant - but not English. It's as if such behaviour is the preserve of excitable Continentals to be shunned by sober and rational Anglo-Saxons. Instead, it's the Anglo-Saxons, George Bush and his loyal retainer Tony Blair, who have been locked into this ever more perilous mindset.

The process began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Three years on, bets are again being doubled. Far from pulling out, the US is this week stepping up its troop strength in Iraq by 5,000 in an attempt to quell the sectarian violence. Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, has been paraded before Congress to pretend that all is indeed on track.

Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, the Secretary of Defence and the man in overall charge of US operations there, has been engaged in an even greater flight from reality. One moment last week, he was insisting that talk of a civil war was overblown: despite everything, he told a Pentagon briefing - and I quote: "The currency is fairly stable; the schools are open; the hospitals are open, the hospitals are open; the people are functioning. You'd fly over it ... and you see people out in the fields doing things, and people driving their cars, lining up for gasoline and going about their business."

So that's all right then. Well, not quite, as he made clear to a Senate committee the next day. America simply had to stay in Iraq. Otherwise its implacable foe would be emboldened by such a retreat, and the US would be forced to "make a stand closer to home". If America left the Middle East, Rumsfeld declared, radical Islam would "order us and all those who don't share their militant ideology" to leave the entire ancient Muslim world, from the Philippines to Spain. Thus the President's Defence Secretary, as Robert McNamara with Vietnam four decades earlier, can do no better than come up with an updated version of the domino theory.

Bush, of course, changed his tune about the Iraq mission, once the initial WMD arguments had been exposed as nonsense. The creation of a democratic government in Baghdad would, as some like to say here, "rearrange the china in the Middle East". The china of course has not been rearranged, but smashed into pieces.

And so to Lebanon, and the fuite en avant continues. One of the scariest aspects of the present crisis is the re-emergence of the neo-conservatives, the loudest proponents of re-arranging (and if necessary smashing) fragile Middle Eastern crockery. The debacle in Iraq, we imagined, had shamed them into silence, and the arrival of Condoleezza Rice at the State Department seemed to herald a new era of realism and compromise in US foreign policy.

Not so. The neo-cons are again all over the airwaves, and Bush and Rice are plainly listening to them. In giving Israel its head in Lebanon to root out Hizbollah, the administration has plainly gone for further china re-arrangement. As in 2003, diplomats and experts in the region who urged caution are being dismissed as wimps. One moment we had Bush talking about how he was opposed to "stopping [the war] for the sake of stopping". A day or two later, his Secretary of State was speculating that the widening war, though it was threatening to drag in Syria and Iran, could be part of the "birth pangs" of a New Middle East.

True, even in Washington, the Qana tragedy came as a sobering shock, but since then there has been no visible effort to pull Israel back. Despite the belated activity at the UN and talk of a "robust" intervention force - which only the French could lead - the belief here is that after so much blood has been split anything less than an unmistakable, crushing victory for Israel would amount to a defeat.

Now logic would suggest that in this chaotic, hugely dangerous moment, you might engage Iran and Syria, at least through informal back channels. Unpleasant regimes they might be, but plainly they have an important bearing on matters - and do not forget that even at the most perilous moments of the Cold War the US kept both front and back channels open with the Soviet Union, however distasteful it might have been.

Conceivably, such secret contacts may be under way now, but to judge from the ever shriller denunciations of Damascus and Tehran by Bush and Condoleezza Rice, I doubt it. You don't talk to bad guys, period. That, of course, has completely removed the prospect of the US, the one power that can influence Israel, acting as honest broker. It also rules out the assiduous shuttle diplomacy that Henry Kissinger employed to tamp down earlier Middle East crisis. But tamping down crises, ceasefires and interim settlements are not what fuite en avant foreign policy is about.

And now the holiday season is upon us. Bush on Thursday set off for his ranch in Texas, but Blair has delayed his departure to Barbados. Quite why is unclear. Once upon a time, Britain might have had some role to play in its resolution. But having so unquestioningly aligned himself with Washington, he has surely squandered whatever influence we might have had on events.

I too am now off to Paris for a couple of weeks' holiday. But this, I hasten to add, is not my own fuite en avant. It feels like the exact opposite - a flight backwards, from the soil of a headstrong, overexcitable New World to that of a wiser and more rational Old World. You remember it; the place that Donald Rumsfeld once sneeringly dismissed as "Old Europe".