For the first time during the Israel/Lebanon crisis there has been some, small divergence between UK and US policy. The difference comes in the shape of Foreign Office minister, Kim Howells, who arrived in Beirut and said:
“I very much hope that the Americans understand what’s happening to Lebanon.
“The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people. These have not been surgical strikes.
“And it’s very difficult, I think, to understand the kind of military tactics that have been used.
“You know, if they’re chasing Hezbollah, then go for Hezbollah. You don’t go for the entire Lebanese nation.”
The remarks are interesting, and clearly authorised, as Downing St did not distance itself when given the chance. However, it is important not to exaggerate the extent of the diversion.
The fact that the UK has chosen to take a different public line to the US is of significance in itself. To some extent, perhaps, it stems from the embarrassment that Tony Blair must have felt as his offer to go and mediate in the middle-east was inadvertently, publicly rebuffed by President Bush, as the mic was left on at the G8 summit.
We also shouldn’t exclude the notion of a kind of Habermas-type morality has, to a small extent, crept into UK foreign policy. That’s to say rather than just making preference-seeking “rational choices“, a moral rationality, where norms enter the decision-making process, also plays a part. If this is true, then the whole discourse of modern surgical war to impose democracy and civilised values will have been at discord with the mounting civilian casualties in the conflict. The effects of the Israeli military action has clearly been devastating on the Lebanese population.
However, as i said above, we mustn’t over-exaggerate the difference between the US and UK positions. Howells also reiterated the Government’s oposition to an immediate ceasefire, an idea strongly backed by the UN.
This oposition to immediate talks from Israel, the US and UK, has a very clear purpose that has been discussed at length in the media. Israel clearly hopes to push Hezbollah as far away from its border as possible and then use the eventual ceasefire to get some kind of international force to act as a buffer between Hezbollah and Israel. To make this possible, given that Hezbollah is a guerilla force, the whole population of Southern Lebanon will have to be permanently displaced. The US and UK are wholly on board with this policy of mass displacement to creat a buffer to the north of Israel.
I personally don’t think this is going to work. They will get back through and the mass displacement of the Southern Lebanese will only make Hezbollah more popular.
The path to peace does not lie in that direction. As David Clark has pointed out, negotiating a viable Palestinian state would remove one of the major causes of the feeling of injustice in the area. If this were negotiated along side Israel giving up its illegal claim on the Shebaa Farms and Golan Hights, it would be like removing recruiting sergeants for organisations like Hezbollah.
So, Kim Howells comments are certainly welcome. I don’t see how anyone can really disagree with his description of the attacks on the Lebanese civilian population. However, if the UK is to have a seriously independent foreign policy, and one that would actually promote peace rather than the buffer-zone plan, it will have to take one crucial step further away from US and Israeli policy.