Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Diplomacy as public hand-washing

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has published a report [PDF] this week on last summer’s Hezbollah–Israel conflict.

One of its complaints is:

We conclude that the [UK] Government’s decision not to call for a mutual and immediate cessation of hostilities early on in the Lebanon war has done significant damage to the UK’s reputation in much of the world. … We believe that such an approach could have led to reduced casualties amongst both Israeli and Lebanese civilians whilst still working towards a long-term solution to the crisis.

I was, and remain, sceptical of this line of argument on the grounds that Israel doesn’t tend to react positively to international cries of condemnation. And public denunciations that aren’t backed up by some solid form of leverage tend only to weaken one’s capacity for exerting future influence. (Over Hezbollah, I suspect that our diplomatic sway is even weaker.)

This is perfectly illustrated by another of the report’s criticisms, a few pages on:

Israeli overflights into sovereign Lebanese territory threaten to undermine and embarrass the Government of Lebanon… We are concerned that the [UK] Government’s calls on Israel to halt overflights are having little impact on its behaviour.

So: our diplomatic ‘calls to halt’ are ineffective with Israel.

That leaves the point about whether urging an immediate ceasefire, however impotently, and perhaps counterproductively, would have been better for “the UK’s reputation in much of the world”. Probably it would, in the short term at least. But is chanting “Not in our name” on the floor of the Security Council to placate the ‘Arab street’ really a responsible position for a government to take?

(The report also says that, while Israel has “an inalienable right to defend itself from terrorist threats”, its reaction to Hezbollah’s seizure of soldiers and firing of rockets across the border was “disproportionate”. This is a fair call, but it misses the broader point that the Israeli strategy was inadequate for confronting a nonstate group operating from a neighbouring country whose government wasn’t hostile. The fundamental problem with the strategy was not that it was excessive in scale; rather, it was misconceived in form. See, for instance, Israel’s own Winograd Commission report [PDF].)

5 comments:

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Andrew R said...

You're right that official protest wouldn't have had any effect on Israel or Hezbollah, but there's a flip side - what advantage did we gain by tactfully keeping our mouths shut? I could easily be wrong, but I don't think either party is better disposed towards us as a result, far less that they're more likely now to do something they don't want just because we ask them to.

As a general principle, if the UK believes that another country's military action is disproportionate, it should say so, unless keeping quiet offers a better hope for resolution. The fact that speaking out may acheive nothing either way is not a good reason for pretending there's nothing wrong.

Tom Freeman said...

Generally I’m very in favour of saying things that you think are true – but I agree with your ‘unless’. There are times when it’s worth keeping your mouth shut in public (I’d say ‘tactically’ rather than ‘tactfully’), although it’s often not clear when exactly those times are. Plus, of course, I have no idea what was said behind the scenes in this case.

Take Zimbabwe. Clearly the diplomatic bridges between Harare and London have long been burned, so there’s no cost there to British ministers when they damn Mugabe: the aim is to make ringing declarations rather than to persuade. But our relations with Israel are much better, and so there’s more scope for positive influence. The trick is to use that influence in a way that doesn’t worsen relations and prove counter-productive.

As Peretz had made it clear that Israel wasn’t going to back down in the absence of something to get Hezbollah to stop, public calls for an immediate ceasefire were bound to be fruitless at best, antagonistic at worst. In fact, Blair did say “The hostilities on both sides should cease immediately” – but not until resolution 1701 had created a way out of the situation.

And even before that (not that I want the job of being his retrospective PR man), he had often said that he wanted it to stop ASAP and that he was negotiating to that effect.

How useful he was, I don’t know. How much less useful he might have been had he done the public condemnations as well, I don’t know either. But on the flipside, I can’t share the moral certainty of all the people who were so furious that he wasn’t joining them in protest (not a pop at you BTW Andrew).

Andrew R said...

Don't worry about it. Personally I think that once you've gone down the "Not In My Name" route, complaining that your positions aren't being backed by the state suggests a certain lack of self-belief.

Tom Freeman said...

Very good point. And a slogan surpassed only by "We are all Hezbollah"...