After the Bombs, Politics
The Lebanon war was damaging for Israel, the United States and, most of all, Lebanon itself. But it may have taught everyone a lesson that will be immensely important to the future of the Middle East: The solutions to the big problems that afflict the region are not military but political.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is getting bashed at home for failing to deliver a quick victory over Hezbollah. But he deserves credit for recognizing the need for a political settlement that enhanced the authority of the Lebanese state. He wisely resisted pressure from his generals to mount a major ground offensive north of the Litani River, understanding that this quest for a decisive military solution would only take Israel deeper into the Lebanese quagmire.
The surprise hero of the conflict was Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. He was a forceful advocate for the Lebanese people and for the very idea of the Lebanese state -- no small achievement in a nation still recovering from civil war. He managed to hold his government together, including the two Cabinet members from Hezbollah. And he was the architect of key elements of the final cease-fire deal: He urged one quick U.N. resolution rather than the two the Americans and French favored, and he successfully argued for an expansion of the existing UNIFIL force to accompany the Lebanese army in the south, rather than an entirely new international force.
What Siniora crafted was a very Lebanese deal -- full of the ambiguities necessary to get all the players on board. He blocked U.S. and French efforts to put the expanded UNIFIL force under the United Nations' Chapter 7 military authorization because of Hezbollah's fears that it would create an Iraq-like occupation force in southern Lebanon. He persuaded the United States, over strong Israeli objections, to have the United Nations study the dispute about Shebaa Farms, an Israeli-occupied area near the Golan Heights that has been one of Hezbollah's excuses for continuing its armed resistance against Israel.
The wild card in the deal is Hezbollah. As the war dragged on, most pundits judged the group's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, the big winner. But that will be true, paradoxically, only if he abides by the deal Siniora made and withdraws his armed fighters from southern Lebanon. If he tries to resume the war or continues to operate as Iran's proxy, he will lose his new halo. U.S. officials believe that Nasrallah may have resisted Iranian pressure to continue the fight when he agreed to Siniora's package. Meanwhile, the Syrians, Nasrallah's other patron, played no role at all in the diplomatic outcome, deepening their isolation.
I've interviewed Nasrallah twice in the past three years, and in both sessions, the key issue we discussed was how Hezbollah's armed might could be successfully absorbed into the fabric of the Lebanese state. Each time, he insisted that Hezbollah would never threaten Lebanon. But of course, that's precisely what Nasrallah did when his forces recklessly seized two Israeli soldiers July 12, triggering the Israeli attacks. If Nasrallah doesn't behave more responsibly and abide by the new U.N. framework, both he and Lebanon are doomed.
What, finally, is the war's legacy for the Bush administration? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was lamentably slow in her initial diplomatic efforts, and the United States has paid a severe price in the credibility of its Middle East "democracy agenda." But Rice and her colleagues improved their performance as the crisis deepened, and they did well in brokering the final deal. And I sense the administration has learned a big lesson -- which is that America must continue the aggressive diplomatic role it belatedly embraced over the past month. The Middle East has become too dangerous for problems to be left to fester.
History shows that the aftermath of war can open unlikely doors to peace, and administration officials recognize they have a moment of opportunity. There's talk of a broad U.S.-led initiative that would make a new push on defusing the Palestinian conflict, rebuilding the economies of Lebanon and other lagging Arab nations, exploring new regional structures for security in Iraq and elsewhere, and encouraging a broad process of Arab-Israeli reconciliation.
There's fear within the administration that this sort of American peacemaking will further traumatize the Israelis in the painful aftermath of the Lebanon conflict. But the best way to keep faith with Olmert is to build on the premise that led him to resist the generals' demands for a wider war: The way out of the Middle East mess is through political agreements, not unilateral moves or quixotic military campaigns. Iran and its proxies have been marking one bloody path to the future; America and its allies must work urgently to construct an alternative.