How brave our warships looked at dawn. Spread over the pale blue Mediterranean, bristling with cannons and machine guns and missiles, it was an armada led by the destroyer HMS Gloucester and the USS Nashville and York and the sleek French anti-submarine frigate Jean-de- Vienne. They represented Us, those ships upon which the Lebanese stared with such intensity yesterday. They represented our Western power, the military strength of our billion-dollar economies. Who would dare challenge this naval might?
It was, our journalists told us, to be the greatest evacuation since Dunkirk. There it was again, the Second World War. And it was another cruel lie which the Lebanese spotted at once. For these mighty craft had not arrived to save Lebanon, to protect a nation now being destroyed by America’s ally, Israel, Lebanon whose newly flourishing democracy was hailed by our leaders last year as a rose amid the dictatorships of the Arab world. No, they were creeping through the dawn after asking Israel’s permission to help their citizens to flee. These great warships had been sent here by Western leaders (Jacques Chirac excepted) too craven, too gutless, too immoral, to utter a single word of compassion for Lebanon’s suffering.
Even Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara could only condemn Hizbollah for attacking the Israelis last week – yes, of course, Lord Blair, they did indeed “start this”, as our Foreign Secretary never ceases to say – without mentioning Israel’s savage killing of more than 300 Lebanese civilians. No, those ships I watched steaming into Beirut port yesterday did not represent Dunkirk. They represented Munich.
Even the newspaper and television stories managed to avoid the reality. As our Jolly Tars helped the elderly on board and US Marines landed very briefly – or “stormed the beach”, to quote the Associated Press’s imperishable report – to protect their ship, television crews hunted through the crowds of refugees for suitable pictures. Their problem, of course, was that almost the entire evacuation is of Lebanese who happen to hold dual citizenship. Cameras moved inexorably towards the very few blue-eyed men and blonde ladies of the “kith and kin” variety, anyone in fact who didn’t look remotely like most of the rest of the refugees. It was pathetic. Even while we are betraying the Lebanese, we tried not to film the lucky few who could escape on our ships.
Of course, there are various kinds of escape, and one of the most adept of political Houdinis is His Excellency Mr Jeffrey Feldman, the US ambassador to Lebanon. In the past few hours, he had to listen – in person – as the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, desperately appealed for a ceasefire to end the destruction of Lebanon by the Israeli air force. “Is the value of human life in Lebanon less than that of the citizens of other countries?” Mr Siniora asked. “Can the international community stand by while such callous retribution by Israel is inflicted on us?” Answer: yes.
Now all this presented Mr Feldman with a little problem. This was the same Mr Feldman, remember, who was heaping laurels on Mr Siniora and his democratically elected government last year for its “cedar revolution”, for throwing the Syrian army out. But if he were to praise Mr Siniora’s speech condemning Israel, Mr Feldman would, no doubt, be summoned back to the State Department in Washington and dispatched to the US embassy in Ulan Bator. So what was he to say when asked for a comment on Mr Siniora’s speech? It was, Mr Feldman said, “articulate and touching”. Articulate – as in “he-knows-how-to-string-the-words-together” – and touching, as in “sad”.
Now to the Department of Home Truths. Mr Siniora did not mention the Hizbollah. He did not say he had been powerless to stop its reckless attack on Israel last week. He didn’t want to criticise this powerful guerrilla army in his midst which had proved that Syria still controls events in this beautiful, damaged country. And he did not dare criticise Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s leader, whom Israel tried to assassinate a few hours later by dropping a massive bomb on what it called a “bunker” in Beirut’s southern suburbs, an explosion which physically shook the entire city. Untrue, cried the Hizbollah. It was the building site for a new mosque.
Ho hum. One has to say that it was indeed a building site that was hit and a few of the unfinished walls appeared to be of Islamic design. But on closer inspection, it did also have a very big basement. A very big basement indeed. “Well,” as one colleague put it to me, “I suppose even mosques have basements, but…”
Quite so. For no one takes anything at face value these days. And that applied to President Bush’s promise to ask Israel to stop destroying any more of Lebanon’s infrastructure. It was an eloquent gesture. And no doubt touching. But there isn’t much of Lebanon’s infrastructure left to destroy.