Another 'Mission Accomplished' Moment?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, August 15, 2006; 1:20 PM

President Bush's startling assertion yesterday -- that at the end of 33 days of warfare between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, Hezbollah had been defeated -- once again raises questions about his ability to acknowledge reality when things don't turn out the way he intended.

Here, from the transcript of his appearance at the State Department, are his exact words: "Hezbollah started the crisis, and Hezbollah suffered a defeat in this crisis. And the reason why is, is that first, there is a new -- there's going to be a new power in the south of Lebanon, and that's going to be a Lebanese force with a robust international force to help them seize control of the country, that part of the country."

My first question: Did he really mean to say that?

Bush clearly intended to blame every bit of the terrible carnage on Hezbollah, even though most of it was inflicted by Israel. That point, he made over and over again. And his central point -- also controversial, but not new -- was this: "The conflict in Lebanon is part of a broader struggle between freedom and terror that is unfolding across the region."

But the conclusion that Hezbollah had been defeated was a rare, possibly unscripted moment of news-making amid a public appearance heavy on timeworn talking points about the march to freedom.

Furthermore, the White House position on winners and losers as expressed by spokesman Tony Snow just hours earlier was noncommittal.

"Q As you look at this, the month-long war in the Mideast, who won?

"MR. SNOW: I'm not sure -- right now what's won is diplomacy has won."

My second question: If Bush did mean to say it, how will he and his aides defend it?

The defeat of Hezbollah was clearly Bush's goal in stalling the international drive for a humanitarian cease-fire for a month. White House hawks, led by Vice President Cheney, argued that Israel should be given time to score a major military victory in a proxy war against Iran.

But Bush's insistence that Hezbollah lost appears to be wishful thinking.

Hezbollah, by most accounts, suffered some military setbacks but has emerged in a stronger political position than ever before. Israel, by contrast, is generally considered to have lost its aura of military invincibility. American clout in the region has taken a big hit. Lebanon's fragile democracy has suffered a terrible blow. And the biggest losers, of course, were the people of Lebanon.

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