Rarely has a diplomatic mission been so vague. According to White House spokesman Tony Snow, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is heading to the Middle East at some point, for some purpose or other. This is encouraging — because the later she goes, the better. The timing of Rice’s trip is so important because it will likely signal the point at which the U.S. begins join the usual suspects in pressuring Israel to stand down in Lebanon. For now, Israel clearly has more time to attempt to deliver a punishing blow to Hezbollah, as the Bush administration straddles between pressure from the world to “do something” (by announcing a future Rice trip) and its admirable desire to give Israel the breathing space it needs to try to devastate Hezbollah (by pushing the trip off).
From Israel’s perspective, the diplomacy around the crisis has played out almost ideally. The Bush administration’s calls for restraint have never risen above the merely ritualistic. The G-8 summit produced a statement laying the blame for the conflagration firmly on Hezbollah. Amazingly, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have effectively sided with Israel in a war between the Jewish state and an irredentist Islamic terror group. That’s because the Arabs realize Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region are behind this latest crisis. All this adds up to an extraordinary free hand–at least for the time being–for Israel to deal with Hezbollah as it will. The Israeli Defense Forces should make the most of it, and the Bush administration would make a gross error by sending Rice to the region too soon or backing calls for a premature ceasefire.
It is not hard to imagine what an eventual ceasefire deal would look like in theory: an end to Israel’s strikes in Lebanon in exchange for the end of Hezbollah’s rocket attacks, the return of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers, and the disarming of Hezbollah. Note the words “in theory.” Clearly Hezbollah has no interest in disarming; the Lebanese government doesn’t have the will or capability to disarm it; and an international force is not going to do so either (United Nations peacekeepers have long existed cheek-by-jowl with Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon). The only realistic means of defanging Hezbollah is for Israel to deliver severe military blows against it. There is a balance to be struck, of course. Israel cannot be seen to be punishing the Lebanese population willy-nilly, and some of its strikes appear to serve only to weaken the very Lebanese government it wants eventually to take control in the south.
But critics of Israel are ready to apply the buzzword “disproportionate” to any Israeli response. What would an exactly proportionate response be? Kidnapping members of Hezbollah and randomly raining rockets on Lebanese cities? Israel is seeking to minimize Lebanese casualties while Hezbollah is seeking to maximize them for propaganda purposes by mingling its forces and infrastructure with the general population. That innocent Lebanese are dying is an awful tragedy. They have done nothing to deserve their fate — but neither have the Israelis cowering in bomb shelters, years after the Jewish state vacated all Lebanese territory. Lebanon’s people have been failed by their own government, which has been unable to eradicate a private army waging war on Israel at the behest of foreign governments.
Ultimately, it is Iran and Syria that are fomenting the strife, and the government in Damascus is more responsible for Hezbollah than the government in Beirut. Some of our conservative compatriots have been urging a wider war. But Israel understandably shows no appetite, absent a worse provocation, to open a third front against Syria. Nor should the U.S., at a moment when the balance of the Middle East is tipped against Hezbollah, haul off and bomb Iran before the EU-3 diplomatic string it has endorsed is fully played out. A victory against Hezbollah would be plenty for now: It would strike a blow to Syria’s prestige, move toward completing Lebanon’s independence from foreign occupation, and eradicate a force Iran has wanted to use as a deterrent against Israel’s or America’s striking its nuclear program.
But we still should do more about Iran and Syria. Iran has been running rings around us in Iraq. We know who are the key Iranian assets in Iraq but have chosen to do nothing about them. Iran is playing for keeps in Iraq — and so should we. As for Syria, the U.S. should step up the pressure on all fronts: imposing more economic sanctions, engaging in a public-diplomacy campaign to highlight the regime’s corruption and terror connections, demanding that it hand over more of the former Iraqi Baathists who have taken refuge there, and ratcheting up enough military pressure (perhaps with aerial reconnaissance and activity along the Syria-Iraq border) to keep Assad very nervous. Iran and Syria want to reorient the Middle East around their radicalism, and we must counter their efforts with equal energy and audacity.
We also must be prepared for what, we hope, will be a post-Hezbollah Lebanon, or at least a Lebanon featuring a much-diminished Hezbollah. The Lebanese military must be able to hold southern Lebanon, and to do so it will need us to train and equip it. It’s a push we should have undertaken in the aftermath of the Cedar Revolution, but instead we wasted more than a year. At the moment, Rep. Tom Lantos (D., Calif.) is holding up $10 million in aid to the Lebanese military, for understandable reasons (distrust of the Lebanese government). But the money will eventually have to be released, and the U.S. and the world more engaged in building the Lebanese government’s capacities.
The next few days could be crucial. Hezbollah’s miscalculation in apparently thinking its cross-border raid would be met with a weak Israeli response has created an opportunity to strike an important blow against Islamic extremism. Things could still go wrong for Israel. Its strikes in Lebanon could backfire and build sympathy for Hezbollah, while it might not be able to inflict truly lasting damage on the terror group without a substantial ground invasion. But the best chance for the best possible conclusion to the crisis will come if Israel continues to pound Hezbollah.
Please, keep cooling your heels, Madame Secretary.