We may not be losing in the Middle East, but we certainly aren’t winning. On top of the growing chaos in Baghdad comes the prospect of a Hezbollah victory in its confrontation with Israel, which would strengthen Iran’s play for regional dominance. Such a victory would be guaranteed by an immediate ceasefire, calls for which intensified in the wake of Israel’s bombing in Qana that killed dozens of innocents. Since Arab extremists make a practice of inventing Israeli offenses against civilians — recall the alleged Jenin and Gaza-beach massacres — events around the bombing deserve scrutiny. Still, there is no doubt that the civilian deaths have served Hezbollah’s propaganda purposes, focusing the world’s ire on Israel rather than on the terror group that mingles its rocket launchers and personnel among civilians in the hopes of creating exactly such tragedies.
Unbowed by the firestorm was the most steadfast member of the Bush administration, President Bush himself. He understands the stakes and has correctly fingered Syria and ultimately Iran as the culprits behind the violence. But the administration is under extreme pressure to join the rest of the world in dictating an end to the Israeli offensive. For a vivid illustration of this, look no farther than secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been showing the strain of getting knocked around by other foreign ministers for the last two weeks. She was adamant about visiting the region because she thought post-conflict political and diplomatic arrangements could best be hammered out face-to-face, and she was willing to ride out the tough press coverage that would come with not delivering a deal. We hope now she will stay in the States for a spell, since her two stops in the Middle East have only given more currency to the “administration’s failing diplomacy” storyline.
The action now moves to New York in any case, where the Security Council will consider a new resolution this week. Anything short of a reaffirmation of U.N. Resolutions 1559 and 1583, calling for the disarming of Hezbollah, is obviously unacceptable. Realistically, there is a limit to how long the U.S. will be able to hold off the rest of the world — including now Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani, who has joined the ceasefire chorus. But for the time being the U.S. and Israel hold the cards; they control the offensive that the rest of the world wants to stop. That is their leverage for trying to force a worthwhile diplomatic and political settlement. Besides which, there is manifestly still work to be done against a Hezbollah that remains capable of pouring rockets into northern Israel, even after Israel has bragged of significantly degrading it. Israel needs to complete its military task with as much dispatch as possible.
The administration hopes to forge a meaningful international force to help the Lebanese army police southern Lebanon. We hope it can. But it may be an unachievable goal, given that countries are unlikely to contribute troops unless the environment is more “permissive” than it will ever be as long as Hezbollah exists in any form. The desire of the sovereign government of Lebanon to take southern Lebanon from Hezbollah, meanwhile, could also be in doubt now that the guerrilla group is experiencing a surge of support in the country (there’s no denying that the Israeli offensive has come at a humanitarian and political price). In the end, Israel might be forced to settle for another long war of attrition with Hezbollah, coupling air attacks and occasional thrusts on the ground aimed at keeping it from again building up significant rocket capabilities with ongoing attempts to kill top Hezbollah leaders.
This would be far from an ideal result, but it beats what the “international community” wants — a ceasefire that would end with Hezbollah right back on the border — and it might be the best that can be hoped for as long as the United States and Israel are fundamentally in a defensive posture in the region. They will remain in that posture so long as Syria and Iran are able to wage proxy wars with impunity in Lebanon and Iraq. Iran, the ultimate source of the violence in Lebanon and much of it in Iraq, has now killed Americans during three decades (the Marine barracks bombing in the 1980s, Khobar Towers in the 1990s, and now in Iraq) without facing any serious consequences.
President Bush said on Monday morning that Syria and Iran “must” stop their support for terror. When a president of the United States uses such a strong word he has to back it up, or else he renders it meaningless and discredits himself. The fight has to be taken to Syria and Iran, which doesn’t mean imminent military action, but does mean more serious pressure on all fronts. Iran’s agents in Iraq currently don’t fear us — they should. And our patience with the current round of ineffective nuclear diplomacy should be wearing thin fast. As for Syria, there are still sanctions that can be levied against it, and Israel should make it clear that it considers Syria’s continued arming of Hezbollah a hostile act. The downward drift of events in the Middle East is eventually going to force the Bush administration either to tacitly admit defeat in the region or to accept the confrontation that its regional antagonists are forcing. And defeat is too awful to contemplate.