Diplomatic Traps

Thursday, July 20, 2006

AS FIGHTING in the Middle East continues, the Bush administration is coming under pressure to launch some sort of diplomatic initiative. These calls sound reasonable; the loss of innocent life in Lebanon and Israel is tragic, the dangers of further escalation are real and U.S. shuttle diplomacy has been instrumental in halting previous conflicts. The problem is this: The usual options in the State Department's playbook would hand to the extremists who launched this war exactly the results they have hoped for.

The standard American gambit during a crisis in Lebanon is to dispatch the secretary of state to neighboring Syria to work out a cease-fire. That's what Warren Christopher did during the last big blowup between Israel and Hezbollah in 1996 -- and it's exactly what Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, is hoping for. In contrast to a decade ago, Syria no longer dominates Lebanon with troops and political puppets. It was driven out by international pressure and a popular uprising last year. But Syria still hosts the Hamas leadership in Damascus and controls Hezbollah's supply lines.

If Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes the mistake of visiting Damascus, Mr. Assad will roll out the red carpet; then he will offer to stop the rocket and missile fire against Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas, on Syria's terms. The result will be to restore Damascus's influence in Lebanon and destroy the new independent, democratic government in Beirut -- which has far more to fear from such a deal than from Israel's cratering of its airport runways and bridges. That's why the best diplomatic step the Bush administration can take toward Syria is to ignore Mr. Assad. He should be excluded from any settlement of the current crisis and from the postwar order in Lebanon.

Another plausible-sounding diplomatic option is for the United States to get behind a U.N. proposal to send a peacekeeping force to Lebanon, after a cease-fire. But that's been tried before, too, and if the result is to allow Hezbollah to regroup and rearm, Hezbollah will have achieved its war aim: to strike a blow against Israel while preserving its status as a state within a state. An international force would help only if it had a mandate and the capability to enforce Hezbollah's disarmament. That won't be possible unless Israel's military campaign greatly weakens the movement. There's a chance Israel's offensive will succeed, but it might take weeks -- and it won't be sustainable if the current rate of civilian casualties and damage continues.

The Bush administration does have one good diplomatic option, though not much has been heard about it this week. That is to insist on the passage by the U.N. Security Council of a resolution ordering Iran to stop its nuclear program, including the enrichment of uranium. The council's five permanent members and Germany promised to take such action last week after Tehran refused to respond to a package of incentives. The unprovoked attack across an international border by Iran's client Hezbollah succeeded in turning the world's attention from the nuclear crisis to the Middle East -- just as Iran must have hoped. The best response is to shift the focus back -- and make clear that the United States and its allies will not be intimidated through war-by-proxy.

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