REMEMBER WHEN THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION was ramping up the invasion of Iraq a few years ago? We were going to remove the dictator, shut down the (nonexistent) WMDs, install a new democracy, and, soon, we were told, a sirocco of freedom would sweep the region. And the road to finally solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would run right through Baghdad.
As death squads run rampant through Iraq, as Israeli warplanes bombard Lebanon and Gaza, as Hezbollah rockets rain down on Haifa and we hold our breath hoping we are not already immersed in World War III, I guess you could say the Bush administration’s strategic plan has failed.
To the degree, that is, that there might be a plan. One yearns for the good old days of Dick Nixon or Ronald Reagan when the flare-up in such a tinderbox region would have immediately produced a vigorous American diplomatic initiative. Instead, this White House has played tiddlywinks as the current conflict threatens to plunge us all into a bloody abyss. Even as U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were trying to use this week’s G-8 Summit to put together an international force to stand between Israel and Hezbollah, all Bush could do was gripe into an open mike about how he wished Syria would get Hezbollah to stop all “this shit.”
In the two-dimensional world inside the president’s head, this was all very simple. If only someone could put pressure on Syria to stop using Hezbollah as its cat’s paw, all this would soon be over. Great, Mr. President. So who should that someone be? If all it takes is some diplomatic leaning on Damascus, where are the friggin’ diplomats?
Instead, the tail of the administration has been furiously wagged by an overheated Israeli dog. The now almost-forgotten incursion of Israel into Gaza was itself a gross and reckless overreaction. There was no justification for Hezbollah’s raid into Israel, killing and kidnapping soldiers. But, again, to say that the Israeli response was disproportionate is to radically understate matters. The attack on the Lebanese infrastructure, including the Beirut airport, only undermines a moderate government that was seen — up to last week — as an ally of the United States and an emerging anti-Syrian force in the region. The continuing Israeli escalation — theoretically aimed at shutting down Hezbollah and driving a wedge between it and the rest of the Lebanese population — has backfired, at least on the second count. Israel is converting the Hez and its radical leadership into admired martyrs. Every building or bridge bombed in Lebanon turns 10,000 more moderate Lebanese, who are seeing the Beirut they only just reclaimed from the wreckage of previous wars returned to rubble, into enemies of Israel.
And of the United States. The Bush administration has given carte blanche to the Israeli action, confirming all of the most paranoid fears of the Arab street. Ehud Olmert’s government really does seem to be itching to take the war into Syria and Iran, and George W. Bush seems only too happy to do the back scratching.
Let’s be clear. This conflict has its historical roots in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory as well as its 18-year-long squat in southern Lebanon. The growth of a radical fringe as manifested in Hamas and Hezbollah is the direct consequence of those policies. For decades the Israelis refused to seriously deal with more moderate interlocutors, and it should be no surprise that they have been pushed aside by the irrational extreme. So while this conflict is anything but symmetrical, all sides bear grave responsibilities in the current bloodshed. The Israelis cannot sit by and let their soldiers get kidnapped nor let their cities get rocketed. The Palestinians, on the other hand, also have a right to demand the freedom of the 9,000 prisoners the Israelis are holding, as well as demand some visible path to an authentic two-state solution. This quagmire is not the making of the Bush administration. Yet its refusal to seriously engage beyond serving as primary funder and blind advocate for Israel only makes matters worse. None of these issues are going to be resolved by the fighting of the past two weeks, and most certainly not by any wider regional war that this administration seems willing to risk.
As Mark Perry, a nonprofit American negotiator in Beirut has pointed out, there are five major political movements in the Arab Middle East: Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.S. government currently talks to none of them.
I’m not sure that George W. Bush would know what to say even if he picked up the phone to call one of them. But someone better get on the hot line and find a peaceful way out. If not, we may indeed be stumbling into even deeper “shit” than President Bush may realize.