Where’s the shuttle diplomacy? In any other administration, at least since Nixon’s, the secretary of state would have flown to the Middle East days ago, would already have touched down in Tel Aviv, Beirut, and Damascus—maybe more than once—to hammer out a cease-fire, a settlement, or at least some sort of compromise to keep the conflict from expanding.
This is how Henry Kissinger and James Baker made their reputations (the good sides anyway). President Clinton and the first President Bush had a special Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, whose sole job was to put out local and regional fires the instant somebody struck a match.
Yet six days into Israel’s most violent border conflict in nearly a quarter-century, President George W. Bush seems in no hurry to put Condoleezza Rice on a plane. At the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg today, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Bush (in a private conversation picked up by an open mic) that things in the region could quickly “spiral out of control.” Bush interrupted him. “Yeah,” he said, “she’s going. I think Condi’s going to go pretty soon.”
Why the wait?
There are two possible reasons, neither mutually exclusive. First, Bush may not yet have decided what to do, and there’s no point sending Rice—who would clearly be speaking with the president’s authority—if she has no position to offer. Second, Bush may be in no hurry to put this fire out; he may want the Israeli government to gain more leverage, to twist Hezbollah’s arm tighter, before pressuring them both to the negotiating table.
Israel’s position is that a return to the status quo of a week ago is unacceptable—that a cease-fire or some diplomatic accord would be useless if it left Hezbollah with the ability, and the tacit permission from the Lebanese government, to continue firing missiles into Israeli territory.
Bush agrees with the Israelis on this score, as do the G-8 countries and, in a highly unusual declaration, a few neighboring Arab leaders who fear the spread of Iranian influence (though their populations may not agree).
The problem is that both sides in this conflict—the Israeli government and the Hezbollah militants—seem to feel they have the upper hand. Neither side seems at all ready to back down; both seem willing to push the fight as far as necessary to accomplish their aims. In this sense, neither is likely to succeed. Hezbollah’s rockets are not going to make Israel drop its conditions for national security. Israeli rockets and tanks aren’t going to disarm Hezbollah. As Karby Leggett reports in today’s Wall Street Journal, Hezbollah keeps its weapons hidden in the houses or backyards of its many supporters. Israel would have to launch a full-scale invasion of Lebanon to root out all the armaments. Israel did this once before in 1982; it started out well (people in southern Lebanon were happy to see the PLO expelled) but soon turned sour, and it ended with a pullout after an 18-year-long nightmare. This time around, an invasion wouldn’t even start out well.
Israeli officials haven’t ruled out going after the source of Hezbollah’s strength—Syria and Iran. Does President Bush want Israel bombing those two countries? Does he want to take the risk that they’ll respond with stepped-up attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq or on American targets elsewhere, or by launching longer-range missiles all across Israel, or by cutting off oil exports?
These are the sorts of scenarios Blair no doubt meant when he said that, unless someone stops the fighting quickly, “this thing will spin out of control.” They’re the sorts of scenarios that have driven former American presidents to put so much effort into Middle East peacekeeping.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is trying to put together a cease-fire proposal, followed by a “stabilization force” in southern Lebanon. Bush is skeptical. He told Blair,
I don’t like the sequence of it. His idea is basically cease fire and everything else happens. … I feel like telling Kofi to get on the phone with [Syrian President Bashir] Assad and make something happen. … See, the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit.
In some ways, Bush is right here. A cease-fire alone won’t settle the issues. Syria gives Hezbollah its supplies and probably its permission to attack Israeli targets. Assad probably is the one person whose pressure on Hezbollah would have instant impact. (The Lebanese government and army lack the strength, the will, or both.) But the real “irony” is this: Because Bush tends to cut off contact with regimes he doesn’t like, the United States has no diplomatic ties with Syria (or Iran), no way to strike a deal or to communicate formally.
As a result, in order to do what Bush himself sees is necessary to “make something happen,” he needs to get some third party to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop firing rockets.
What kind of way is this for a superpower to behave?
Unless he wants to heighten the chances of a war that engulfs the entire Middle East, Bush needs to do what most presidents in far less dire circumstances would already have done: drop the moral posturing; resume diplomatic relations (not the same thing as friendship) with all parties; “get on the phone with Assad” himself (don’t leave it to Annan, whose leverage is limited); and get Condi on that plane, not “pretty soon,” but now.