Analysis

Crisis Could Undercut Bush's Long-Term Goals

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006

The Israeli bombs that slammed into the Lebanese village of Qana yesterday did more than kill three dozen children and a score of adults. They struck at the core of U.S. foreign policy in the region and illustrated in heart-breaking images the enormous risks for Washington in the current Middle East crisis.

With each new scene of carnage in southern Lebanon, outrage in the Arab world and Europe has intensified against Israel and its prime sponsor, raising the prospect of a backlash resulting in a new Middle East quagmire for the United States, according to regional specialists, diplomats and former U.S. officials.

Although the United States has urged Israel to use restraint, it has also strongly defended the military assaults as a reasonable response to Hezbollah rocket attacks, a position increasingly at odds with allies that see a deadly overreaction. Analysts think that if the war drags on, as appears likely, it could leave the United States more isolated than at any time since the Iraq invasion three years ago and hindered in its foreign policy goals such as shutting down Iran's nuclear program and spreading democracy around the world.

"The arrows are all pointing in the wrong direction," said Richard N. Haass, who was President Bush's first-term State Department policy planning director. "The biggest danger in the short run is it just increases frustration and alienation from the United States in the Arab world. Not just the Arab world, but in Europe and around the world. People will get a daily drumbeat of suffering in Lebanon and this will just drive up anti-Americanism to new heights."

The White House recognizes the danger but thinks the missiles flying both ways across the Israel-Lebanon border carry with them a chance to finally break out of the stalemate of Middle East geopolitics. Bush and his advisers hope the conflict can destroy or at least cripple Hezbollah and in the process strike a blow against the militia's sponsor, Iran, while forcing the region to move toward final settlement of the decades-old conflict with Israel.

"He wants a resolution that will solve the problem," White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters yesterday. "Not only do we feel sorrow for what happened in Qana, but also a determination that it is really important to remove the conditions that led to that."

"This moment of conflict in the Middle East is painful and tragic," Bush said in his radio address Saturday. "Yet it is also a moment of opportunity for broader change in the region. Transforming countries that have suffered decades of tyranny and violence is difficult, and it will take time to achieve. But the consequences will be profound for our country and the world."

At the heart of the crisis for the United States is a broader struggle with Iran for influence in the Middle East, one that arguably has been going on since the Islamic revolution of 1979 and that has escalated during Bush's presidency. The United States not only backs Israel in the current war but also has accelerated weapons delivery to Israel. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has long acted as a surrogate for Iran, and in the past three weeks it has shown off Iranian weapons never before used by the radical group.

"It's really a proxy war between the United States and Iran," said David J. Rothkopf, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "Running the World," a book on U.S. foreign policy. "When viewed in that context, it puts everything in a different light."

The Hezbollah attacks on Israel that touched off the latest conflict came just as international pressure on Iran to give up uranium enrichment had reached a crescendo. Bush aides suspect Iran orchestrated the attacks to distract attention from its nuclear program or to demonstrate the consequences of pushing too hard. "It's tempting to believe that," said a senior official involved in the crisis but not authorized to speak on the record. "Iran spends a very large amount of money on Hezbollah."

The president hopes the crisis will ultimately help him rally world leaders against Iran's nuclear program. Even as the U.N. Security Council today considers a peacekeeping force for Lebanon, it may vote on a U.S.-backed resolution to threaten sanctions if Iran does not suspend uranium enrichment in August.

"There's no question that this is going to stiffen up in the long run the resolve of the Europeans in dealing with Iran," said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department official who teaches at Lehigh University. "Even if they don't like what Israel is doing," he said, they will recognize that Iran "is a menace."


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