Leading article: The humiliating death of an independent British foreign policy


Britain today finds itself more isolated internationally than at any time since the invasion of Iraq. Our official position on the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon is at odds with the European Union, the United Nations and global opinion in general. By refusing to call for a ceasefire we find ourselves with only the United States and Israel itself for company.

We refuse to demand a cessation in hostilities, even though a fair number of our own citizens are in the firing line. We had to get permission from the Israeli military to evacuate thousands of Britons from Beirut this week. We will presumably have to make a similar request to get our remaining stranded citizens out of Tyre, in the heavily bombarded south of Lebanon. How on earth did we get ourselves into such a humiliating position? How did we end up supporting a military operation that is so manifestly against the national interest?

We surely know the answer already. The truth is that Britain no longer has what can be called an independent foreign policy. Our Prime Minister long ago threw his lot in with the Bush administration. And President Bush is adamant that Israel must be given a free hand in Lebanon. It is this - and this alone - that explains our government's refusal to call for a ceasefire. Mr Blair would not dare risk a breach with the White House now, especially considering he is off to Washington next week.

In an echo of the build-up to the Iraq invasion, our leaders are busy coming up with justifications for this perverse stance. Mr Blair claims that the release of Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbollah would change British policy. Yet even Israel admits that its operations now have a wider objective. Our Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett desperately claims that the goal of the Israeli operation is to help the Lebanese government to take full control of the country. This is laughable. The Lebanese government has been crippled and the country's infrastructure all but destroyed. Lebanon will be lucky to escape a recurrence of civil war when this is over.

All this is symptomatic of a broader dishonesty from our leaders when it comes to the Middle East at the moment. They make connections only when it suits them. For instance, we have heard much recently about Iran and Syria's support for Hizbollah. But they deny connections when it could be embarrassing. Mrs Beckett was indignant this week when it was suggested to her by an interviewer that the crisis in Lebanon had something to do with the instability radiating out of the catastrophe in Iraq. For the most part, our leaders are reduced to parroting the hopelessly simplistic US line that anyone who opposes US, UK or Israeli policy in the Middle East must be considered an enemy in the great "war on terror".

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in Lebanon gets worse. After 10 days of Israeli bombardment, more than 330 people have been killed, a third of them children. The UN emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland has warned of a humanitarian disaster in the country in the absence of a truce to allow the distribution of aid. Even leaving aside the unacceptable humanitarian cost, the bombardment is not going to enhance Israel's own security. Hizbollah will be damaged but it is not going to disappear. In the long term it may even be strengthened, as Israel creates more enemies for itself through its collective punishment of the Lebanese people.

Guerrilla armies cannot be bombed into submission. But neither President Bush nor Mr Blair will say as much to the Israeli government. Instead our leaders find themselves acquiescing in the shameful notion that indiscriminate violence by Israel can help to deliver justice in the Middle East.

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