The debacle in Lebanon and the evacuation of tens of thousands of people has held the world’s gaze in recent days, in large part because it turns out that so many countries have their citizens living in a land that has been pulverized over and again for as long as most can remember.
Readers will recall last week’s front page photo of a couple of Irish kids stepping on board their evacuation bus, one clutching her teddy bear.
Ireland does not have an embassy in Beirut, just an honorary consul who by now is probably thinking of some honorary time off in Bundoran.
To help the evacuation along, Ireland’s Vice Consul General in New York, David Healy, was winged to the region even as the fighting between the Israelis and Hezbollah reached the status of all out war.
Healy has previously served at the Irish embassy in Cairo and has more than the c_pla focal of Arabic. He spent last week in Syria coordinating the movement of Irish nationals across the border from Lebanon into a charter member of the Axis of Evil — but one that had suddenly taken on the air of a benign and tranquil corner of a world gone stark raving mad.
In all, over 100 Irish were evacuated in two groups along with some other nationalities who were made welcome on board Irish-chartered buses.
European Union countries are obliged to help nationals from other EU states if no other option is available. The Irish went beyond this in aiding some non-EU Swiss and a few others with a sudden yen for the auld sod.
Other Irish nationals, meanwhile, are believed to have made their way to Cyprus by sea on ships owned or chartered by other nations, while a few were flown to safety in an Irish government jet.
After an initial nerve-wracking delay, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps arrived in force off the coast of Lebanon, but not until after the public relations disaster born of the $150 evacuation charge per American citizen.
“Rescued … at a price, Evacuees fuming as U.S. charges for ride,” roared New York’s Daily News in a headline.
The fleeing fee apparently stemmed from a law passed in 2003 that few people apparently know very much about — rather like the Revised U.S./UK Extradition Treaty.
There might indeed be valid and sensible reasons for charging one’s citizens for rescue in a dodgy situation, but not when bombs are raining from the sky onto the heads of children.
For comparison purposes, think of your home being broken into by an ax murderer and you call the cops.
They say sure, they’ll be over in a few minutes and how are you going to pay for their rushing to your rescue, cash or charge?
The fleeing fee had Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi up and roaring that a country that could afford $300 billion for the war in Iraq could afford to fly and ship its own people out of another war zone.
Pelosi had no wit whatsoever. Had she called the fleeing fee a tax she would have found herself a warrior queen at the head of a bipartisan army with pundits talking about her sudden presidential prospects.
Anyway, the flee-fee mess was diffused. Some grown ups turned up for work at the State Department, Condi Rice among them, and decided that the sight of Uncle Sam squeezing citizens half frightened to death wasn’t the best PR in a post-Katrina world.
The fee was waived and people even got to fly back stateside courtesy of the world’s richest nation.
“Massive sealift rescues Yanks, Marines help — plan to bill for transit dropped,” cooed the now soothed Daily News.
In a situation like this, it should be emphasized, the most important thing is having the resources, in this case ships and trained personnel, and the U.S., thankfully, has them in abundance.
Not so every country, alas. There was uproar in Australia at the slow, almost FEMA-like response of the Canberra government.
The Sydney Morning Herald carried the headline “Exodus descends into farce as rescue ferry fails to appear.”
Seems that the Aussies were dealing with a Turkish shipping company whose agents leased a ship to both the Australians and the Canadians at the same time. The Canadians ended up with the tub. Some Turks obviously haven’t forgotten Gallipoli.
The Canadians were under pressure too. Half of Canada’s population turned out to be resident in Lebanon and clamoring to get out. The Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, diverted his plane while flying back from the hapless G8 Summit in Russia to pick up a handful.
“All costs are being picked up by Ottawa,” the Toronto Sun made a point of noting in a tartly worded editorial headlined “Get our citizens out of Lebanon.” A day later the paper was urging Ottawa no use Baksheesh bribes to grease the wheels of evacuation.
The sense of tragedy mixed with farce had a true global dimension as the evacuations proceeded.
But not for the first time the high point of the latter was provided by the British who dispatched a naval flotilla the likes of which has not been seen on the high seas since the Falklands/Malvinas war.
HMS this, that and everything else were sent and, as one would expect, there was at least some order to an operation that must have brought back nostalgic memories of Dunkirk in more than one corner of the kingdom.
The London Evening Standard brilliantly illustrated true Brit grit, and some good old Titanic-era priorities, with this gem of a paragraph: “Britons wanting to be evacuated should bring their passports, money, credit cards and one small bag no bigger than aircraft hand luggage. They are advised not to bring large bags, pets, household staff or friends who are not British citizens, as none of these will be allowed on the ships.”
Ah, visions of hapless James the butler cowering in a Beirut basement while Rex the faithful hound waves a forlorn paw from a cratered beach as the aptly named HMS Bulwark sails away over the blue horizon.
Nobody’s perfect of course and there was good news in all of this for the fleeing Britons. There was no mention of a ban on teddy bears.