By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006; A01
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."
Others are not so hopeful. Outside the White House, the mood among many foreign policy veterans in Washington is strikingly pessimistic, especially as leaders of Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, traditional rivals based in different Islamic sects, began calling for followers to take the fight to the enemy.
Analysts foresee a muddled outcome at best, in which Hezbollah survives Israel's airstrikes, foreign peacekeepers become bogged down, and U.S. relations with allies are severely strained. At worst, they said, Hezbollah and Iran feel emboldened, Islamic radicalism spreads, and a region smuggling fighters and weapons into Iraq fractures further along sectarian lines.
"What the conflict has exposed in a really clear way is how linked all these issues in the region are to each other," said Mara Rudman, a deputy national security adviser in the Clinton White House now at the liberal Center for American Progress. "The worst-case scenario . . . is a much more radicalized Islamic fundamentalist Middle East and much more isolated Israel and a much more isolated United States and fewer people to talk with."
Haass, the former Bush aide who leads the Council on Foreign Relations, laughed at the president's public optimism. "An opportunity?" Haass said with an incredulous tone. "Lord, spare me. I don't laugh a lot. That's the funniest thing I've heard in a long time. If this is an opportunity, what's Iraq? A once-in-a-lifetime chance?"
In the long run, he and others warn, the situation could cement the perception that the United States is so pro-Israel that a new generation of Arab youth will grow up perceiving Americans as enemies. The internal pressure on friendly governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere could force them to distance themselves from Washington or crack down on domestic dissidents to keep power. In either case, Bush may have little leverage to press for democratic reforms.
Jon B. Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, outlined "not even the worst-case scenario, but a bad-case scenario: South Lebanon is in shambles, Hezbollah gets credit for rebuilding it with Iranian money, Hezbollah grows stronger in Lebanon and it's not brought to heel. The reaction of surrounding states weakens them, radicalism rises, and they respond with more repression. None of this is especially far-fetched. And in all of this, the U.S. is seen as a fundamentally hostile party."
All of this is far too gloomy for administration officials, who see such dire forecasts as the predictable reactions of a foreign policy establishment that has produced decades of meaningless talks, paper peace agreements and unenforced U.N. resolutions that have not solved underlying issues in the Middle East.
"Some of the overheated rhetoric about how the United States can't work with anybody, we've lost our leadership in the world, is just completely ridiculous, and this crisis proves it," said the senior administration official involved in the crisis. "We are really indispensable to solving this crisis, and you're not going to solve this problem merely by passing another resolution."
While the diplomats work, the Pentagon is studying the possible impact on an already-stretched U.S. military. Commanders have diverted the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group from a training mission in Jordan where they were available as reserves for Iraq. Now they are on ships in the Mediterranean Sea to help with humanitarian efforts, and another unit has been put on alert as backup for Iraq.
The Pentagon has done contingency planning for U.S. troops participating in a multinational peacekeeping mission, but Bush aides have all but ruled out such a scenario. A more likely option, officials said, would have the United States provide command-and-control and logistics assistance.
Peter W. Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said that officials are studying the possibility of putting troops in Lebanon but that it is too early to comment on what such a force would look like. "The concept is still under development, and discussion of any potential U.S. participation would be premature."
Some analysts acknowledge the varied challenges the United States faces but consider the possible gain worth the risk. "It's a Rubik's Cube. It's very, very difficult to resolve," said Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant defense secretary under Bush who is now at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "But if we were able to dismantle Hezbollah, that would be very positive for the war on terror."
The White House is acutely aware of the dangers of stirring up anti-American sentiment in the region. "There may be times when people say that they're unhappy with whatever methods we pursue," the White House's Snow said last week. "We are confident that in the long run, people are going to be much happier living in freedom and democracy than, for instance, in nations that are occupied by terrorist organizations that try to hijack a democracy in its formative stages."
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.