Returning to Old Approach, U.S. Faces Risky Path Ahead

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006

JERUSALEM, July 29 -- The Bush administration is now entangled in a risky new diplomatic venture in the Middle East -- and one with huge potential pitfalls even if Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice succeeds in negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah in the days ahead, according to several former diplomats and specialists with long experience in the region.

The controversial U.S. position -- which has pitted Washington against most European and Arab allies that pressed unsuccessfully for an immediate cease-fire -- also reflects a shift back to the Bush administration's first-term strategy, foreign policy specialists said. With Rice at the helm of foreign policy, the second Bush term had been characterized by a more realistic and collegial approach to foreign policy, a shift from the hard-charging go-it-alone push epitomized by the Iraq war during the first term.

But now, analysts said, the administration is effectively back endorsing all-out force again, in defiance of allies, as part of its policy of trying to rid the Middle East of militants and radicals, or the "drain the swamp" policy.

In his weekly radio address, President Bush placed the Lebanon crisis in the context of Iraq and the broader U.S. war on terrorism. "As we work to resolve this current crisis, we must recognize that Lebanon is the latest flash point in a broader struggle between freedom and terror that is unfolding across the region," Bush said.

Rice has described the ongoing fighting as not just between Israel and Hezbollah but as part of the "birth pangs" of the "new" Middle East.

In the biggest challenge she has faced as secretary of state, Rice's diplomatic gamble has already deepened the chasm between the United States and the Islamic world, where recent surveys show that public opinion of Washington is at an all-time low and many feel the Bush administration is not genuinely committed to a fair peace, specialists and former diplomats said. Lebanon's most prestigious paper, an-Nahar, recently ran a cartoon that showed Rice using an eyedropper to put out the fires of strife.

"The U.S. is alienating even more world opinion, not to mention allies, for the sake of a strategy that is very likely to fail," said Augustus Richard Norton, an expert on Lebanese Shiite politics and a former U.N. peacekeeper in Lebanon.

The U.S. framework for resolving the current conflict is most vulnerable on at least three broad fronts -- political, regional and military.

Politically, the centerpiece of the plan requires Hezbollah to surrender the military force and formidable weapons arsenal it spent 24 years building, and which has given it special standing both in Lebanon and well beyond its borders. As the only Arab force that has ever made Israel retreat in six decades of regional warfare, Hezbollah would effectively have to give up being a regional player and make its own retreat to local Lebanese politics, where it would be just one of 17 recognized sects in a country 1,000 square miles smaller than Connecticut.

"Nothing will work unless Hezbollah agrees to it. And you can't expect Hezbollah to do something that is committing suicide," said Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East program and a former Clinton administration National Security Council staffer. "You can't condition a cease-fire on steps that Hezbollah will not accept."

Any package will have to include enough provisions so that Hezbollah feels it is "compensated" for the steps it will be required to take to reduce the threat to Israel, Malley added.

The U.S.-Israel strategy of pounding Hezbollah could also backfire, former Bush officials warn. "Don't get me wrong -- if I thought that this air campaign would work and would eliminate [Hasan] Nasrallah and the leadership of Hezbollah, I think it would all be fine," former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage said on National Public Radio this week. "But I fear that you can't do that from the sky and that you're going to end up empowering Hezbollah and perhaps introducing a dynamic into the body politic in Lebanon that will take some great period of time to recover from."

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