Leading article: Of words and deeds

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The Independent Online

Actions, not words, are what the Government is anxious to emphasise on the war in Lebanon. John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who had the unenviable task yesterday of claiming that the Cabinet was united behind the Prime Minister's line, declared that "the Prime Minister... is trying to bring this process of violence... to an end, but do it in a way that isn't just about words. The words are the easy bit." Earlier in the week, in an ill-tempered radio interview, the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, made the same point. On Thursday, the Prime Minister responded to questions about why he had not called for an unconditional ceasefire by declaring that "unless you get an agreement that... is going to hold, then all we are doing is expressing a view. We are not actually getting the job done."

Strange that a man whose trademark is his engaging fluency should set so little store by words. And of course, if he had called for an immediate ceasefire at the outset of the crisis rather than now, "provided it is on both sides", it would at least have demonstrated to the Arab world that Britain preserved a critical detachment from the policy of the US, and we would now enjoy rather more credibility as peacebrokers.

But let us do as the Prime Minister says, and judge him by his deeds rather than his words. And in doing so, we do not seek to diminish the value of his activities towards the proposed Security Council resolution that was announced yesterday. That resolution is indeed indispensable for achieving the international consensus that can ultimately deliver an end to the conflict. But this week, the Prime Minister has been saying a good deal else about the Middle East. It is worth considering whether what Mr Blair does actually matches what Mr Blair says.

In his speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, he said that we - the US and Britain - must "change dramatically the focus of our policy" in the region. He spoke about "an arc of extremism now stretching across the Middle East... to defeat it, we will need an alliance of moderation". The struggle, he maintained, was "between Reactionary Islam and Moderate, Mainstream Islam... about global values". Thus, the US and Britain are engaged in a struggle for pluralism, democracy and open markets against those in the Muslim world who favour sectarian separatism and dictatorship.

If this be indeed the choice, we know which side we should be on. But is this war of values actually compatible with the actions of the US and Britain in the Middle East? In Iraq, their first and last resort has been to use force to overthrow dictatorship. Neither is it true that the repulsive regime of Saddam Hussein fitted Mr Blair's template of Reactionary Islam - in those terms it was rather more moderate than many Islamic governments.

And how, crucially, does this apply to Lebanon? The conflict there may be between Israel and Hizbollah - and ultimately between Israel and Hizbollah's backers, Iran and Syria - but it is being fought out largely in the territory of a democratic state that is by no means wholly Islamic.

Lebanon is - or rather, was - the kind of polity the Prime Minister favours, a democracy where Christianity, Islam and Judaism co-exist, open to global markets. It had recently rid itself of the Syrians, and its economy, however debt-ridden, was relatively robust.

Now, its government looks like a cipher in the real struggle between the militants of Hizbollah and Israel. The one result of the aggressive Israeli response to Hizbollah - backed by the US and Britain - has been to achieve a consensus between Shia Muslims, Christians and Druze, against the devastation wreaked by Israel on Lebanese civilians, infrastructure and economy.

There is a lesson in all this. With Mr Blair, pay attention to what he does, not what he says. They don't always square up.