If the first casualty of war is truth, the second is comment. While soldiers fight, diplomats struggle and civilians die, the commentariat is having a poor Middle East conflict. "Solutionists" dribble out their six-point plans for peace and interventionists behave as if all the world were fools and only they wise. I almost prefer the propagandists.
The format is now familiar. It starts with an eye-catching list of atrocities attributed equally to the Israelis and Hezbollah, followed by carefully nuanced sympathy for each in turn. Having thus established his impartiality, the writer continues with a dollop of historical bromide in which "the west" is to blame, as prelude to a "proposal" as pat as it is implausible. Last comes a thunderous demand that all show various abstract qualities "if peace is to return" - and the west's moral supremacy made evident.
High priest of such panglossian comment, Thomas Friedman, wailed last week in the New York Times at the "madness" that has seized the region. "When will the Arab-Muslim world stop getting its pride from fighting Israel," he asked rhetorically, "and start getting it from constructing a society that others would envy?" Answer came there none. This followed a classic of armchair diplomacy in the International Herald Tribune from the American senator, Joseph Biden. It proposed a ceasefire with the Lebanese army moving to the Israeli border, "possibly" augmented by the United Nations. This would "need" widespread political support and "must" prevent Hezbollah from rearming. Syria and Iran "need" to be stopped from resupplying them and Israel could then withdraw, the peace "guaranteed" by Egypt and Saudi Arabia with "American leadership". This would all involve "progress and moderation."
Platitudes which, in domestic policy, would be dismissed as vapid somehow pass muster as wisdom in foreign affairs. Thus the Times declared that "if any diplomatic initiative pioneered by Dr Rice is to succeed" then "the conflict must not grow out of control". Really? In the Guardian a gaggle of MPs condemned "both the Hezbollah rocket attacks... and the disproportionate Israeli military strikes" and demanded that the British government do so too. Even-handed condemnation seems as patronising and as it is pointless.
The feature of "if only" commentary is a list of idealistic proposals somehow to be catalysed by abstract nouns. Ned Temko of the Observer states that "if Lebanon is to reassert control over its own territory and stop being a proxy battleground" it will need "resolution and unity". The Economist thinks it will need "courage and generosity" and the Observer "patience". The Guardian admits that "no easy solution is on offer" yet if "outsiders do not make the necessary effort" a solution will not stick. What is needed is "good faith".
The Tory foreign affairs spokesman, William Hague, is no more in touch with reality. After admitting in the Times that his three bromides, five steps and an "agreed cessation of hostilities by both sides" might not happen, he concludes merely that "it has to be right to try". The only alternative is for the situation to "drift on", as if a British foreign secretary had the power to stop it. The goading of the present one, Margaret Beckett, for not "doing more" about the Middle East is absurd.
The major premise of such comment is that there is a solution to an intractable foreign conflict known to "good people" which bad ones refuse to acknowledge. Feel-good pits itself against feel-bad. It has already driven Tony Blair into a frenzy of hamfisted diplomacy which has predictably tainted him with bias. Now he must support yet another "middle way" intervention in Lebanon reminiscent of that which wrecked the country in the early 1980s. It is reminiscent of Reagan's five-point plan for stopping the Falklands war in 1982 which Margaret Thatcher rejected on the grounds that "too much blood had been spilled" for compromise.
War begins because by definition the will to compromise has evaporated and ends when one side has had enough. To "demand" a ceasefire - usually a biased call at a particular stage in any war - may make the caller feel better, but so what? The only practical way for outsiders to stop the fighting is to starve the soldiers of weapons. This would mean Iran and Syria denying Hezbollah guns and rockets and America denying Israel planes and bombs. Both would be admirable contributions to peace, but both are at politically inconceivable.
I could analyse, champion and condemn events and players in the Middle East to my heart's content. The form in which Israel was created and has been sustained was always going to ensure half a century of bloodshed, but nothing is going to change history. I could say much the same of conflicts in the Congo, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, even Ireland. The fact is that
territory has long been contested and bloodily so.
If outsiders had a solution to the argument between Israel and its neighbours, it would surely have been found by now. The world's mightiest powers and the most brilliant statesmen (not to mention the rest) have devoted themselves to the case. Both sides can draw just enough moral rectitude from the past for compromise to be too much to bear. In this part of the world, immoveable object contends with irresistible force and will do so for many decades to come. The only generalisation that seems to apply is that periodic outbreaks of war are followed by a relapse into exhausted peace. Outside intervention only enables the participants to avoid the
burden of responsibility for upholding that peace.
Western diplomatic and military adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan at present a spectacular and catastrophic failure. What is astonishing is that the west's commentariat should goad its leaders into yet more of the same. Neo-imperialism, reborn in the uniform of world policeman, is now a raging virus. It is hard to imagine a swifter way of spreading the poison of the Middle East conflict than for western troops to land once again in Lebanon and be forced to take sides in another war.
Border wars can continue for decades without destabilising their regions. Even as this one engages powerful allies on both sides - from Iran to America - it need not embroil the wider world. Some conflicts are best left to their participants to resolve, however brutally. This is no abrogation of humanitarian responsibility. The Middle East has long claimed and received the west's charity. But the unthinkable must sometimes be thought. Somewhere on Earth there is a conflict that might resolve itself sooner if outsiders both say and do nothing about it.