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End the Slow-Motion Diplomacy

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; A19

A week ago the United States was struggling with two wars: the one it was fighting in Iraq and the one it hoped to avoid against Iran by maintaining a solid coalition to stop its nuclear program. Then came Hezbollah's kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and the ferocious Israeli response, and, as strategists in Tehran must have anticipated, this third war complicated America's strategy on the other two fronts.

The Hezbollah war has certainly clarified the threat from Iran and its proxies. Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah has shown himself as a reckless, self-appointed guardian of Lebanon whose actions threaten the Lebanese as much as they do the Israelis. Unfortunately, Israel's retaliation has undermined (to put it mildly) the Lebanese government of Fuad Siniora, whose reformist Cedar Revolution was, until a week ago, one of the few bright spots in the region.

This is a week when all the parties in the horror show that is the Middle East need to think as coolly as they can. A provocative action by Hezbollah has triggered a furious Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, which in turn has brought horrific missile attacks on Israeli cities. It's a cycle in which each side can see confirmation of its worst fears about the other -- and in which further provocation or miscalculation can have disastrous results. The only people who are likely to be genuinely happy at this chain of events are the mullahs in Iran.

Given the American stakes in this crisis, the Bush administration's passivity is inexplicable. Hezbollah and Israel have been tossing lighted matches back and forth in a region soaked with gasoline, and the world is waiting for robust American diplomacy. Instead we see a tongue-tied superpower, led by a president who grumbles into an open mike in St. Petersburg that Kofi Annan should get on the phone to Syria and make it all go away, or maybe Condoleezza Rice should get on a plane to the Middle East.

Bush's slow-motion diplomacy is partly an effort to allow Israel time to destroy as much of Hezbollah's arsenal of missiles as it can. But what comes next? Israeli officials talk of accomplishing what the Lebanese government would do itself if it had the power: break the Shiite militia. That's a worthy goal -- Hezbollah has it coming -- but one that is almost certain to fail. Lebanon is as thankless a battlefield as Iraq, as the Israelis well remember. They were initially welcomed as liberators by the Shiites when they invaded in 1982 -- only to be pinned down by Hezbollah's resistance movement and forced to retreat. Only a compulsive gambler would think the odds are any better this time.

There is an attitude among policymakers in the United States and Israel that I would call "Prospero's temptation," after the wizard of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Prospero thinks that with his magic powers he can do anything -- subdue the wild Caliban and the other denizens of his haunted island and bend them to his purposes. This temptation was evident in Ariel Sharon's invasion of Lebanon in 1982; it was clear in America's 2003 invasion of Iraq. In each case, Israel and America were encouraged by their Arab allies to think that they could alter the fundamentals in a way that the Arabs themselves could not. You can hear echoes of that same thinking today, as Israeli analysts talk of how the Sunni nations -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan -- are privately thanking them for breaking Shiite power.

Rather than bringing positive change, military action in the Middle East tends to bring unanticipated consequences. In this case, one wild card is the Shiite population of Iraq -- America's crucial ally there. If the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah stretches to weeks and even months, how long will it be before the United States faces a Shiite insurgency in Iraq, which would almost certainly spell a decisive American defeat there? And, ominously, CIA and FBI officials are said to be hearing increased "chatter" about new terrorist attacks in America.

When international crises arise, analysts often cite the tragic chain of events that produced World War II -- Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement that emboldened the Nazis and led to the slaughter of tens of millions. The 1938 Munich lesson of the necessity for action is indelible. But it's also worth considering the lesson of 1914, in which the world slipped toward a war that could have been avoided had statesmen escaped the lock-step chain of action and response.

Are we living through a Sarajevo moment, like the concatenation of events that marched Europe toward World War I? Impossible to know. But given the risks for the United States and its allies, this ought to be a week when Americans are aggressive, active diplomats, rather than bystanders. If America means to be a world leader, it cannot appear to be a prisoner of events.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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