The Big Idea

Don’t Blame Bush

The war in Lebanon isn’t his fault.

Suburbs of Beirut

A few days before war broke out there last week, I was standing on the so-called Blue Line that divides Israel from Lebanon. Looking across the border from Kibbutz Manara, my colleagues and I—who were visiting on a trip sponsored by the pro-Israel group AIPAC—could see Hezbollah fighters standing atop one of their concrete bunkers. They were separated from Israel only by some unimposing barbed-wire fences and by a United Nations deployment even less daunting than the fencing. As we peered through binoculars, an Israeli military officer described the fragile balance of terror that had kept the border relatively calm since Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon six years earlier. Hezbollah menaced the Israeli Galilee with its arsenal of 13,000 rockets, but did not fire them for fear of retaliation from Israeli artillery. Israel didn’t attempt to disarm the Hezbollah militia because it didn’t want to provoke a rain of missiles.

We don’t really know why Hezbollah chose the moment it did to end this fragile truce by launching a raid that killed three Israeli soldiers and resulted in the kidnapping of two others. Was it acting out of rivalry or solidarity with Hamas’ preceding attack from Gaza? Did Iran, which is Hezbollah’s chief sponsor, order the attack or merely enable and encourage it? We don’t know whether Syria, which is the chief backer of Hamas, was a planner or merely a conduit for Hezbollah’s Iranian weapons. Nor can we say with much assurance whether the Lebanese government, which includes significant Hezbollah representation, allowed terrorists to rule the south because of weakness or sympathy.

We do know enough, however, to divide responsibility for the current war among these players: Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. This has not stopped many analysts in Europe and the United States from laying blame for the violence squarely at a less obvious doorstep—that of the Bush administration.

There are three basic criticisms. The most familiar is that Bush encouraged the Arab-Israeli conflict by neglecting the peace process championed by Bill Clinton. The problem with this line of reasoning—which comes mainly from the liberal side—is that negotiations were at a genuine impasse when Bush arrived in office. Yasser Arafat’s rejection of a deal at Camp David made clear that no settlement was possible so long as he was alive. Mahmoud Abbas, who assumed the presidency of the Palestinian Authority upon Arafat’s death, had the desire but not the authority to forge a compromise. The election Abbas called in January 2006 was an attempt to bring Islamist radicals to heel and gain the legitimacy he’d need to negotiate peace. In large part because of the PLO’s history of corruption and incompetence, it had the opposite effect, bringing Hamas to power in the occupied territories. But the key point is that the Bush administration missed no opportunity that ever actually existed to pursue a peace agreement. He had to wait, as the Israelis did, for Palestinian leadership that would be both willing and able to make the kind of deal Arafat rejected.

A second case against Bush, which comes from advocates of diplomacy and negotiation as the solution to all the world’s problems, is that he failed to directly engage with Syria, Iran, and Hamas, leaving them to their mischief. Like the first objection, this one confuses the process of foreign policy with the substance. It has been a hallmark of Bush’s approach to isolate rather than engage rogue regimes. Because he sees good relations with the United States as a carrot and the lack of relations as an effective stick, the president has not asked for direct talks with Iran or Syria, where we withdrew our ambassador last year on the assumption that the Assad regime was behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It’s fair to say that Bush’s stern approach has worked in Libya, which dropped its nuclear program in order to have American-sponsored sanctions lifted, and that it hasn’t worked anywhere else. But that doesn’t mean that less confrontational rhetoric and flying visits from Condi Rice would have yielded better results in Syria or Iran (or North Korea, for that matter). Even without a hotline to the White House, channels for communication inevitably exist. 

To my mind, the sharpest critique of the administration is the final one, which one hears most often from foreign policy realists, namely that Bush’s naive faith in democracy has helped terrorists gain power in both Palestine and Lebanon. Bush and Rice supported the participation of Hamas in the Palestinian elections in January on the strength of Abbas’ prediction that he would win. Whoops. In Lebanon, the State Department has hailed the “Cedar Revolution,” without emphasizing that the elections it led to gave one of the world’s worst terrorist organizations a significant voice in the government. 

But it’s far from clear that less support for illiberal democracy would have produced a different outcome in either place. An ill-considered election made Hamas stronger. But even if Bush and Rice had demanded that the vote be postponed, and even if Abbas had agreed, Hamas would remain the dominant paramilitary force in Gaza, operating beyond the control of a weak Palestinian president and capable of firing Qassam rockets across the Israeli border at will. The same goes for Hezbollah. Absent the 2005 Lebanese election—which was not the Bush administration’s doing in any case—the Iranian-armed Shiite militia would have remained in control of the country’s southern tier. You can blame Bush for a lot of mistakes, and I do, but not for the latest turn in the seemingly eternal and eternally depressing Arab-Israeli conflict.