By Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; A10
In blunt language, President Bush yesterday endorsed Israel's campaign to cripple or eliminate Hezbollah, charged that Syria is trying to reassert control of Lebanon, and called for the isolation of Iran.
Bush, in remarks at the White House after he briefed members of Congress about the recent Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations, said the "root cause" of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon "is terrorism and terrorist attacks on a democratic country."
"And part of those terrorist attacks are inspired by nation states, like Syria and Iran. And in order to be able to deal with this crisis, the world must deal with Hezbollah, with Syria and to continue to work to isolate Iran," Bush said.
The president spoke amid increasing pessimism about the potential for diplomacy to defuse the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in the near future. Many U.S., European and Arab officials are resigned to a prolonged battle with limited prospects for diplomacy because of limited alternatives and what one European diplomat called the "unstoppable dynamic" of Israel's military campaign.
At the same time, the administration is scrambling to develop a strategy to deal with the crisis. Despite unity at the G-8, U.S. officials said that a lot of ideas have been offered without details or feasibility assessments.
"What we have to do before we launch anyone at a target is understand the mission," a senior U.S. official said.
For now, the administration is letting Israel's military strategy to weaken Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers play out.
"The real objective here has to be to deny the Mediterranean branch of Tehran a strategic victory and to find a way that, coming out of the crisis, we have a situation recomposed, so Hezbollah's influence is more limited -- ideally you could say destroyed," the senior U.S. official said.
Iran gave birth to Hezbollah and has provided some $100 million annually in funds and most of its arms.
Syria, which ended a 29-year occupation of Lebanon when it withdrew 14,000 troops last year, is trying to get back into Lebanon in violation of U.N. Resolution 1559, Bush said. The president said there are growing "suspicions" that the instability that followed Hezbollah's cross-border raid last week will lead some Lebanese to invite Syria to return. Any such move is "against the United Nations policy and it's against U.S. policy," Bush vowed.
Pressed on whether he is trying to buy time for Israel to eliminate Hezbollah, Bush said Israel should be allowed to defend itself. But he also cautioned that Israel should be "mindful" to allow Lebanon's government to "succeed and survive" after the conflict.
"Sometimes it requires tragic situations to help bring clarity in the international community," Bush said. "And it is now clear for all to see that there are terrorist elements who want to destroy our democratic friends and allies, and the world must work to prevent them from doing so."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated yesterday that the situation is not yet ripe for U.S. diplomatic intervention.
"We have to make certain that anything that we do is going to be of lasting value," Rice said during a brief session with reporters along with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. "The Middle East has been through too many spasms of violence, and we have to deal with underlying conditions so that we can create sustainable conditions for political progress there."
Rice added: "When it is appropriate and when it is necessary and will be helpful to the situation, I am more than pleased to go to the region."
After talks with Rice, the Egyptian foreign minister pressed for an urgent cease-fire. "We have to keep working to reach that objective. It is imperative. We have to bring it to an end as soon as possible," he told reporters at the State Department.
A U.N. team touring the region is expected to return tonight and brief the Security Council tomorrow. Secretary General Kofi Annan will also discuss his ideas for an international peacekeeping force, which he said will be "much larger" than the U.N. mission of 2,000 peacekeepers stationed in southern Lebanon since 1978. Annan said a force "would help stabilize the situation" in southern Lebanon and give the fragile Lebanese government time to "sort out" Hezbollah's disarmament and "extend its authority throughout the territory."
Rice is expected to attend the U.N. discussion, diplomats said.
Some U.S. and European military and intelligence officials said yesterday that they were puzzled by Israel's strategy and concerned that its goals are unrealistic or too ambitious.
Israel has "target packages" but no viable long-term strategy, a senior U.S. official said, speaking anonymously because he was criticizing an ally. There is limited reason to believe that either Hezbollah or Hamas can be compelled to give up their Israeli prisoners or end the attacks.
Others questioned the impact on the Lebanese government and the very military force Israel hopes will eventually take over the areas now under Hezbollah's control.
"Won't Israeli military actions have the effect of decreasing the already limited capacities of the Lebanese government?" asked retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, who teaches at Boston University. "Going after Hezbollah makes sense, but I just don't understand the rationale for the campaign as it is being conducted."
But retired Israeli army Col. Gal Luft, a former commander in the town of Ramallah, said, "Israel is attempting to create a rift between the Lebanese population and Hezbollah supporters by exacting a heavy price from the elite in Beirut. The message is: If you want your air conditioning to work and if you want to be able to fly to Paris for shopping, you must pull your head out of the sand and take action toward shutting down Hezbollah-land."
Other specialists in security strategy said that Israel is sending messages to several audiences, telling the people of Lebanon that the attack is the price of tolerating the Hezbollah's presence and the broader Arab world that its current response is the price of provoking Israel.
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.