Friday, August 04, 2006

Postures of the ethically cleansed

The world and his dog seem to be demanding that Tony Blair condemn Israel’s military action in Lebanon and call for an immediate ceasefire. I’m not quite sure why, though. Let’s accept, for argument’s sake, that this action is unjustified and worth stopping ASAP, whether or not Hizbollah continue their attacks.

(I do, as it happens, find it hard to see how either Israeli security or Lebanese democracy are supposed to benefit from this beyond the short-term disruption to Hizbollah’s operations – not to mention all the civilian deaths. But I believe the technical term for a unilateral unconditional ceasefire is ‘surrender’.)

So what would happen if Blair called for Israel to stop? Would they stop? Does he have influence with Ehud Olmert, either directly or via George Bush? If he called for the US to call for Israel to stop, would the US do so? Neither country has a record of responding to diplomatic pressure for restraint in these matters.

And in this case, many governments, including those of France and Russia, have already condemned Israel and urged an immediate ceasefire – to no effect. Numerous respected people, from Javier Solana to Jan Egeland, have declared Israel’s actions “disproportionate” but failed to reduce those proportions thereby.

Does Blair have such massive influence that he could make the difference?

A retort may be that it might just be worth a try, and that it couldn’t do any harm. On the first count, though, if it is such a long shot, a tentative proposal whose chances of success are unknown but probably slim, then why is there such furious certainty among those demanding a condemnation? Either they have given no thought to what they are saying, or their primary purpose is to make gestures rather than to achieve an Israeli ceasefire.

On the second count, treating countries as pariahs (North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe) is not usually a good way of stopping them from being nasty. It is a fact of international diplomacy that once you publicly condemn another government strongly enough, you burn your bridges with them. Unless you are then prepared to back up your talk with big economic leverage (which the UK cannot exert over Israel or the US) or with force (and please let us not imagine that threatening Israel would be sane), your opinions will cease to carry weight.

Strident condemnations may satisfy a chunk of popular opinion but they rarely have any effect, other than to cripple the efficacy of any future diplomacy you might try – however moderated, however behind-the-scenes.

But I suspect that isn’t the point. Some of the critics may well want to put the UK on non-speaking terms with Israel (and the US): they are nasty and we will wash our hands of them because we are pure of heart. For most, though, I think consequences are irrelevant; they don’t think that far ahead. They just want Blair to endorse the “not in my name” outlook. Well, that sort of solipsistic isolationism might be a tolerable posture for an ordinary individual to protest from, but it’s not something sensible for a prime minister to do.

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