Magazine article The Spectator

'We Will Have to Fight Them Again': The Untold Story of the Lebanese War

Magazine article The Spectator

'We Will Have to Fight Them Again': The Untold Story of the Lebanese War

Article excerpt

Hogarth's 'Fourth Stage of Cruelty' is a compelling evocation of what it must have been like to attend a public human dissection. Three medical men are busily dismembering a corpse on a wooden table; a group of their fellow surgeons, distinguished by their mortarboards, look on with suitably studious attention -- although one of them has the hint of a prurient smirk playing about his lips. And the artist conveys his own revulsion at the scene with a piece of vivid foreground detail: there is a dog happily tucking into discarded human offal.

It is the best metaphor I can think of to explain the experience of the past months I have spent trying -- through dozens of interviews -- to strip back the layers of last summer's crisis in Lebanon. Like an early surgeon wondering at the machinery of the human body, I find myself admiring the wheels and gears of diplomacy at work.

There is the same sense of intellectual excitement at identifying the evidence of morbidity in the system. And there is, inevitably, a measure of revulsion. Stories from the bodysnatching days tell of anatomists who suddenly realised that the body they were about to go to work on was that of a relative or friend; I cut my journalistic teeth in Lebanon 20 years ago, and I regard the place as a sort of friend.

Very few of those I spoke to tried to deny that an honest audit of the war produces a balance sheet covered in red -- in terms of both human blood and political losses. The conflict began on 12 July last year, when Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid and captured two Israeli soldiers, and by the time the fighting ended almost exactly a month later some 1,200 people had been killed -- the overwhelming majority of them civilians. Hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced from their homes in southern Lebanon and northern Israel and the infrastructure of Lebanon, a country still recovering from its civil war, had been seriously degraded.

Israel emerged with its faith in its fabled military power badly battered, and the conflict dealt its Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, a blow from which he will probably never recover. Its kidnapped soldiers have, of course, never been returned.

Hezbollah, by contrast, has been able to claim a kind of victory; the group still has its weapons, and its new confidence has been all too apparent in the manner in which it has recently challenged the legitimacy of the Lebanese government. The movement's allies, Syria and Iran, have seen their prestige greatly enhanced.

The political fallout was felt in Whitehall too, and when you raise the episode in King Charles Street you quickly realise that you have touched on what remains a very raw nerve indeed. Much of the political heat during the conflict was generated by an almost obsessive debate about two words -- 'immediate ceasefire'; readers will no doubt remember how resolutely British and American leaders resisted the pressure to allow that phrase to pass their lips. The Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells, who was given a high-profile role during the conflict, now concedes that the government paid a price for that. 'I would be a fool to say it hasn't hurt our reputation, ' he said.

'It's been thrown at me many times. I mean not just abroad, [but] in Bradford and in places where we have got big Muslim populations inside this country.' His boss, Margaret Beckett, insists that she wanted the fighting to end as quickly as everyone else did and that she worked hard behind the scenes to achieve a ceasefire that would last. Calling for an immediate ceasefire would, she argues, have alienated the Israelis, and she rejects any suggestion that 'we were resisting the calls to use the words "immediate ceasefire" in a way that meant we were happy for the conflict to continue'. There is no reason to doubt Mrs Beckett's sincerity in this regard, but I have been given a rather different account of events by the man who was then America's ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. …

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