By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006; A18
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."
At the moment, the Shiite movement also has serious incentives not to cooperate -- or fully cooperate -- given many indications that its popularity is growing on streets throughout the Arab world, even in countries with Sunni Muslim majorities, in turn giving Shiites, the Islamic world's second sect, new prestige. Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, which is Sunni, have traditionally been rivals. A cell of the Sunni extremist movement tried to assassinate Hezbollah leader Nasrallah in April. But this week al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called for Muslims to rally to Lebanon's side.
Regionally, the Hezbollah conflict with Israel increasingly looks like a proxy war between Iran and the United States, according to European diplomats and U.S. analysts. The U.S.-designed package to end it is premised on excluding Iran and Syria, despite their historic interests, geographic proximity and deep political ties to Lebanon, not only with Hezbollah.
Iran converted to Shiite Islam in the 16th century -- in large part to establish a different identity from the neighboring Sunni Ottoman Empire -- with the help of Shiite clerics from what today is Lebanon. Ties between the two nations' clergy have been close ever since. And Lebanon was part of Syria until France pulled it apart to create a haven for Maronite Christians, a Catholic sect. For decades, until very recently, the Lebanese and Syrians considered themselves one people in two nations.
"Our approach has been hampered from the beginning by our failure to initiate direct, high-level contact with Syria, perhaps the one party that can bring some meaningful pressure to bear on Hezbollah, besides Iran," said Wayne White, former deputy director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia.
Ignoring Syria or Iran could be seriously counterproductive, undermining the long-term prospects for a deal, former diplomats and analysts said. Any sustainable solution will require getting the "necessary buy-in" from Tehran and Damascus to ensure Hezbollah participates, said Edward P. Djerejian, former ambassador to both Israel and Syria and now head of Rice University's Baker Institute. "What is essential for success is that all the parties need to be engaged either directly or indirectly."
Washington has no ties with Iran, and has strained relations with Syria. But the two countries could be brought in through "muscular" diplomacy that involves both carrots and sticks, as they were in the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait and the subsequent Madrid peace conference, Djerejian said. Washington has resisted including either country even indirectly because it considers them part of the problem for creating, arming and abetting Hezbollah.
Armitage criticized his former colleagues as "a little lazy" for not talking with Syria. "I happen to feel we are, in large measure, in the right," he said. "But we have to be able to sit and listen to the Syrians in this case and see if they have the desire, the courage and the wisdom to get involved in a positive way. We get a little lazy, I think, when we spend all our time as diplomats talking to our friends and not our enemies."
Militarily, a new international force will be highly exposed and almost certainly controversial among some Lebanese long weary from the parade of foreign armies in the poor south -- Palestinian guerrillas for over a decade, then Israeli troops for 18 years. The last multinational force in Lebanon, led by the United States and including French, Italian and British troops, also went in as peacekeepers after Israeli's 1982 invasion but ended up becoming ensnared in Lebanon's civil war -- and becoming targets of Hezbollah suicide bombers. They departed abruptly in 1984, their mission incomplete.
The international force currently under discussion would not be formally charged with disarming Hezbollah, Rice said, but instead with helping the Lebanese army oversee Hezbollah's disarmament over time. The force would have at least an indirect role in the process -- and might well be perceived by many Lebanese as being dispatched to help defang Lebanon's last private army, said U.S. analysts and European diplomats.
"I think it's going to be a slippery slope," said Danielle Pletka, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "There's no multinational force that can disarm Hezbollah. Once you go down that road you make compromises, and compromises will be that whatever happens, Hezbollah is not disarmed."
"It's a risky approach," Pletka said. "It's doing something to do something for the appearance of doing something."
Staff writer Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.