washingtonpost.com
Fighting in Beirut Threatens a Top Bush Administration Priority

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 10, 2008

On the eve of his trip to the Middle East next week, President Bush faces the collapse of one of his three top priorities in the region -- stabilizing Lebanon, a rare Arab democracy -- amid new fighting that once again pits the United States against Iran and Syria through surrogates, according to Lebanese and U.S. analysts.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted Friday that Hezbollah was not acting alone when its gunmen took over West Beirut yesterday. "Backed by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah and its allies are killing and injuring fellow citizens, undermining the legitimate authority of the Lebanese government and the institutions of the Lebanese state," she said in a statement.

A senior State Department official said Hezbollah was unlikely to have taken such a brazen step without "some kind of green light" from Iran, given the political and military risks involved. The official also said the appearance of Syria's Lebanese allies for the first time on the streets of Beirut on Friday to support Hezbollah, after initially staying out of the confrontation, indicates that Damascus is now "pretty heavily involved."

The Bush administration has been scrambling to mobilize international support for the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Rice spoke to Siniora as well as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the French and Saudi foreign ministers. The Arab League announced an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss the crisis, with the State Department calling on the regional body to show its displeasure with Hezbollah and its sponsors.

The Bush administration has spent $1.3 billion over the past two years to prop up Siniora's government, with about $400 million dedicated to boosting Lebanon's security forces. But Washington's assistance has been put in check by Hezbollah -- the Shiite militia trained, armed and financed by Iran and Syria -- which has the Siniora government under virtual siege.

Along with Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Lebanon has been central to the administration's Middle East agenda, especially in promoting democracy. Bush had been scheduled to meet with Siniora in Cairo at the end of his Middle East tour, but it is now unclear whether Siniora will be able to leave Beirut. The airport and port are closed.

"Clearly, Bush has a two-header now. He'll have to explain away the lack of progress on the peace process, and a crisis in Lebanon that could see the collapse of the Siniora government. It comes at a time when the news from Iraq is as gloomy as ever and oil prices have reached $126 a barrel," said Geoffrey Kemp, a Reagan administration National Security Council staffer who worked on Lebanon during the Shiite takeover of West Beirut in 1984.

State Department officials said Friday that the international coalition supporting the Lebanese state against Hezbollah, which has failed to comply with two U.N. resolutions to disarm, has never been stronger. But in each of the three Middle East crises where it plays a major role, the United States finds itself pitted against increasingly powerful forces loyal to Iran and Syria.

"The U.S. has put a lot of capital into Lebanon to support the weaker side politically and militarily. The U.S. approach is based on [the idea that] one side can prevail, and that's not how things work. This is a country where consensual politics is the name of the game and the way things are done," said Augustus Richard Norton, who served with the United Nations in Lebanon and is the author of "Hezbollah: A Short History." "If there's going to be a solution, it will involve some compromise with the opposition, which will include Hezbollah."

For now, U.S. officials said they do not consider the fighting to be either a coup d'etat or a civil war. "We view this more as a political fight than a physical fight," the senior State Department official said, adding that most Lebanese do not want a repeat of the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990.

Washington believes Hezbollah has "bitten off a bit too much" and now risks alienating the rest of Lebanon's population, including Hezbollah's important Christian allies, he said. "Hezbollah has been politically damaged by what it did this week," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company