By Paddy Ashdown, the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 until January this year (THE GUARDIAN, 29/07/06):
Sometimes events surpass hyperbole – and this, I fear, is one of them. It is impossible to overstate what is now at stake in the Middle East. As Tony Blair returns from Washington he must confront the fact that the shape of the region cannot be the same again. But with so much dry tinder about and so many firebrands, what we cannot know is whether this will affect us all on a much wider and more dangerous scale.
It is also difficult to comprehend the delicacy of the dilemma on whose horns we are impaled.
On the one hand we would all like to see a ceasefire as soon as possible, backed by a settlement and the quick interposition of a peacekeeping force on the ground in Lebanon and Gaza. But I remember the ceasefires in Bosnia. They came and went like sunny afternoons. And when they had gone they left the soldiers of the intervening force, Unprofor, once again as impotent observers to a conflict neither side wanted to end and no one in the international community was prepared to stop.
A ceasefire without the ingredients of a lasting peace and a willingness by both sides to observe it would place any intervening international force in an equally impossible position. If it were weak it would very quickly be turned into another Unprofor. If it were strong it would soon become an occupying force standing between the combatants and the war aims they had not yet forsaken.
On the other hand, the chances of this conflict widening grow every day. Shutting it down quickly must now be an imperative aim of western policy.
Hizbullah may have started this with an outrageous breach of international law and a sustained and flagrant contravention of a UN security council resolution. But it is not Hizbullah’s position that is weakening now. It is Israel’s. Its stated war aim was to destroy Hizbullah. It is not clear why, having failed to do this by occupying Lebanon, it thought it could achieve it by bombing. But whatever its thinking, it has been unable to deliver the knockout blow that was its primary military aim.
From now on, Hizbullah does not have to win. It merely has to survive as a potent force – and it appears to be doing just that. Meanwhile the political damage done to Israel through miscalculation, overreaction and targeting errors is incalculable. But there is no comfort to be taken in the thought that Israel may be reaping the whirlwind it has helped to sow. A defeat for Israel and a victory for Hizbullah would have terrifying consequences for the Middle East, which would probably begin with regime change on a wide scale (but not the kind Washington looks for) and could end with the very battle for survival that Israel has always claimed that its use of military force was designed to avoid.
Alongside Israel’s failure sits the failure of what I suspect was the strategy of Blair and perhaps Bush. The most positive construction that can be put on this is that they hoped Israel would weaken first Hizbullah and then Iran and Syria, and thus create the context for a wider Middle Eastern settlement, incorporating Palestine and easing our problems in Iraq. Israel’s failure so far to achieve its war aims means that this strategy too is in danger of being frustrated.
The world should get very nervous when the US feels frustrated and Israel faces defeat. This is when miscalculations of even greater magnitude become even more possible. There are powerful voices among the neocon Christian right – now very influential in Washington – that the US policy aim should be to use Israel’s excesses to draw in Iran and Syria, so that the US could “take them down” as a prelude to reshaping the Middle East for democracy. This is the Clint Eastwood-style “C’mon punk, make my day” strategy. If it were adopted it would be bound to lead to a widening conflagration that would embrace the fragile tinderboxes of central Asia and goodness knows where beyond. I have to believe that no responsible government, in Washington or elsewhere, would follow such a path. But I wish I felt more sure in that belief.
There is only one solution to this crisis, and it is the same solution we have to find in Iraq: to go for a wider Middle East settlement and to do it urgently. The US cannot do this. But Europe can. Would this mean talking to Iran and Syria? Of course it would. You can make peace only by talking to the other side. Would this mean a solution to Palestine? Of course it must, for this is the burning coal that lies at the heart of the fire. Would this be unwelcome in Washington at the moment? Probably. But not if, in the end, it provides a way out of the impasse in which they find themselves. Would this mean Europe embarking on its own course? Yes – but this is the right time to do it.
I don’t want to believe that America’s strategy is to widen the war. But, just in case, Europe’s strategy now should be to widen the peace.