Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Like Beethoven’s Fifth and Tchaikovsky’s 1812, Shelley’s Ozymandias is, alas, a cliche solely through overuse. But never have its sentiments – “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” – been more applicable to the lands which we still call the “Middle East” and its torturous embrace by “the West”. The British fled Basra, the Americans deserted Iraq. Now we are all preparing the Retreat from Afghanistan. The “sneer of cold command” – on the shattered visage of Ozymandias, although we tend to forget this line of the poem – catches so well the Muslim view of our colonialism and of the only colonial power left in the region: Israel. Militarily, we have already scuttled away, as the French did in Algeria in 1962, and the British in Aden in 1967, and the Multinational Force in Beirut in 1984. I suppose we must also remember the British in Palestine.
But never before has America joined in our European submission. Take the Obama policy, constructed on the colossal wreck of Bush’s New American Century. Barack Obama held out his hand to Iran. They bit his hand. He supported Mubarak. Then he no longer supported Mubarak. He supported the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt after he won the elections. And he – and the repulsive Tony Blair – now support the Egyptian army. Blair was bad enough. Egypt was in danger of “sliding into total chaos”, he has now told us, and we have to help the country “go back [sic] to democracy” after the “virtually unique situation” in which “either the army intervened or the country collapsed”.
But now listen to William Burns, the US Under-Secretary of State and allegedly the most powerful diplomat in America – and thus the world – as he arrived in Cairo last week. “I did not come with American solutions, nor did I come to lecture anyone. We will not try to impose our model on Egypt.” Just what that “model” is was a mystery to Egyptians, but Burns’ inevitable visit to the lads in khaki who staged the latest coup suggests that, once again, Washington prefers generals to democrats in hot places.
So now we arrive in the Middle East as smiling supplicants, blessing any “people’s change” (unless it is in Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Oman or any other monarchical autocracy of the Gulf). We hiss at those who humiliate us – Iran and now the disobedient, ruthless regime in Damascus – and we purr, naturally, if the Israelis are humiliating us. “We don’t take the side of particular personalities or particular parties,” Burns told Egyptians – watch out, by the way, for anyone who uses the word “particular” – but this is really because America no longer has the will to take a moral stand with its “friends in the region”. Except, of course, for US policy over Israel – which is, let the Israelis walk all over you, write any blank military cheque demanded of you and apologise for telling the truth if the Israelis get upset.
The West’s power-retreat from the Middle East is no bad thing, but does it have to be performed with so much grovelling?
Take the EU’s new decree, which conditions all future co-operation agreements with Israel on a directive that they not include Israeli settlements in occupied territory. Put very bluntly, EU citizens are sick to death of Israel’s creeping and utterly illegal colonisation of Arab land in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – and intend to let Israel know how angry they are.
But what does the Charge d’Affaires of the EU’s delegation to Israel say when explaining this new ruling? Hark to this from Ms Sandra de Waele, words that would make Ozymandias weep: “It cannot be denied that maybe there is a growing sense of frustration in Europe, not so much with the dialogue in the peace process, it may be more with the continued settlement construction and maybe that filters down to these kind [sic] of political positions that have been taken.” Note the double negative “cannot be denied”, the use of “frustration” rather than “anger”, the three “maybes”, the “filters” and “kind of”, even the use of “political positions”.
The reference to the non-existent “peace process” is almost insulting since it does not exist, save in the minds of the EU, Obama and others who think you can colonise the people you are making peace with. Wow! Benjamin Netanyahu’s shaking in his shoes. Israel, he said, would not submit to European “dictates”. Too true, mate. Then we had Gordon Brown in his new persona as UN Special Envoy on Global Education, rightly praising the courage of the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yusufzai, who was savagely shot by the Taliban but is now the recipient of a Taliban commander’s letter. The Taliban claims it regrets her attempted murder but asks why schoolgirls killed and wounded in US drone strikes do not receive the same publicity. Good point. But questioned by Jon Snow, the courageous Brown – rather than biff Obama for these shameful robotic attacks which so often kill innocents – simply ignored the question. Cowardice under fire, I’d call it.
But that is the problem. It’s one thing to withdraw, quite another to do it so ignominiously. Retreat by all means, but not in so cowardly a way. If you no longer have a sword, at least show a bit of moral courage.
Up on the Golan, meanwhile, it’s the changing of the guard. The Austrians, who haven’t fought a war since their inglorious incorporation into the Reich – under the chap with the moustache whom we won’t mention – is “doing a Basra” by retreating out of the UN’s ceasefire observer force because the Syrian civil war has spread on to the Golan plateau. But stepping in to the breach is a small nation which stayed neutral during the events of 1939-45 – a very wise decision, says I, who wrote my Trinity College Dublin PhD thesis on the subject – and which has more UN peacekeeping experience than most: Ireland.
Through militia killings, Israeli shellfire and civil war, Irish UN peacekeeping battalions stood their ground in southern Lebanon for almost 30 years – they are still there – and many a veteran will be joining the new 100-plus strong Irish mechanised infantry unit destined to take over from the Austrians. Forty-eight Irishmen lost their lives in Lebanon, most from Israeli, Palestinian and Hezbollah gunfire and bombs. Three were killed by one of their own. But for a force which was bloodied at the Niemba ambush in the Congo more than half a century ago, the Irish take with them a long UN history.
One thought. Israel was worried about the Austrian withdrawal. But its relations with Ireland’s UN battalions in Lebanon were often deplorable. When Irish troops shot back at Israel’s proxy Lebanese militia, the Israelis made fraudulent accusations of Irish drunkeness and anti-Semitism.
This did not go down well in Dublin, but the Israelis now need the Irish on Golan more than they do in Lebanon. Peace in our time?