Last week I decided not to discuss the newly agreed cease-fire in Lebanon because I really didn’t know what to think about it. Now certain things have become extremely clear. The cease-fire represented an almost complete cave-in on the part of the United States and, as it turns out, an admission that we had no means of reaching our objectives of breaking Hezbollah’s power. During the week both President Bush and Secretary Rice tried to put a positive spin on matters. Because the inner deliberations of this Administration are so closely held, it is very hard to tell whether they are once again fooling themselves or whether they have something more up their sleeve.
There are two possible explanations of what happened. Either State Department officials got through to their boss, who in turn got through to the White House, that the American position in the Arab world would collapse completely if the fighting continued much longer, or else the Israelis decided that further indecisive conflict with 100 rockets falling in Israel every day would not be worth its cost. And thus, last Friday and Saturday, Americans at the UN agreed to a cease-fire that did not include the return of the captured Israeli soldiers, did not demand Hezbollah’s disarmament, and did not provide for an international force with coercive powers. Things have become much clearer this week, as the Lebanese Army has made clear it has no intention of disarming Hezbollah and France has proposed to send nothing more than a token international force. In an effort to explain this the Secretary of State gave an interview to USA Today and published an op-ed in the Washington Post, and the President gave a press conference.
Rice began her interview by claiming that the international force was a crucial element of the agreement and claiming that it had the right to defend itself if Hezbollah stood in its way, but she quickly had to backtrack and admit that no one expected the international force physically to disarm Hezbollah. Instead, she postponed the day of reckoning, citing once again the UN resolution (1559) that has already asked for the disarmament of Hezbollah and counting upon the international community. To wit:
“And that the Lebanese Government has already undertaken an obligation to do that. Now we will see whether Hezbollah, which is — after all, has ministers in the Lebanese Government, is prepared to live up to those international obligations. We will see who is for peace and who isn't. We will see whether Hezbollah has taken the lesson that everyone in the international community understands, that you can't have one foot in politics and one foot in terror.
“But this time, we'll make it very clear; if there is resistance to the obligations that the Lebanese Government has undertaken, then there will be a problem and Hezbollah will have to face the international community and Hezbollah supporters will have the face the international community.”
Pressed again on what would happen if Hezbollah did not disarm, she claimed they had been dislodged from their positions in the South (as indeed they have in the small strip occupied by the Israelis), and added:
“And then I think there will be a lot of pressure on Hezbollah to make a choice and if, in fact, they make the wrong choice, one would have to assume that there will be others who are willing to call Hezbollah what we are willing to call it, which is a terrorist organization. Europe does not, for instance, currently list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. I would think that a refusal to live up to obligations that were undertaken by the Lebanese Government, clearly putting Hezbollah outside of the Lebanese Government consensus might trigger, for instance, something like that.”
In other words, although not enough of the world agreed with the United States to give us what we wanted, give them time, and they will. The Post op-ed began, rather astonishingly, by saying that the United States had insisted upon the unconditional release of the Israeli prisoners, but omitting to mention that they have not been released. It repeated many of the same points, but concluded by addressing a troubling point.
“Already, we hear Hezbollah trying to claim victory. But others, in Lebanon and across the region, are asking themselves what Hezbollah's extremism has really achieved: hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes. Houses and infrastructure destroyed. Hundreds of innocent lives lost. The blame of the world for causing this war.”
The problem, of course, is that virtually every report out of Lebanon says that that is not how the Lebanese people (much less the rest of the Arab world) see the situation at all. Hezbollah’s stature has grown because it fought the mighty Israeli Army to a standstill, and it will grow further as it takes the lead, with the help of Iranian money, in reconstruction.
President Bush, in his news conference on August 14, began more directly by blaming Hezbollah for the whole conflict (with much justice, since they clearly intended to incite it), and blaming Syria and Iran for Hezbollah’s activities. When he took questions, he was pressed much harder on the issue of who had won.
“ First of all, if I were Hezbollah I'd be claiming victory, too. But the people around the region and the world need to take a step back and recognize that Hezbollah's action created a very strong reaction that, unfortunately, caused some people to lose their life, innocent people to lose their life. But on the other hand, it was Hezbollah that caused the destruction.
“People have got to understand -- and it will take time, Andrea, it will take time for people to see the truth -- that Hezbollah hides behind innocent civilians as they attack. What's really interesting is a mind-set -- is the mind-sets of this crisis. Israel, when they aimed at a target and killed innocent citizens, were upset. Their society was aggrieved. When Hezbollah's rockets killed innocent Israelis they celebrated. I think when people really take a look at the type of mentality that celebrates the loss of innocent life, they'll reject that type of mentality.
“And so, Hezbollah, of course, has got a fantastic propaganda machine and they're claiming victories and -- but how can you claim victory when at one time you were a state within a state, safe within southern Lebanon, and now you're going to be replaced by a Lebanese army and an international force? And that's what we're now working on, is to get the international force in southern Lebanon.”
“None of this would have happened, by the way, had we -- had 1559, Resolution 1559 been fully implemented. Now is the time to get it implemented. And it's going to take a lot of work. No question about it. And no question that it's a different kind of war than people are used to seeing. We're fighting the same kind of war. We don't fight the armies of nation states; we fight terrorists who kill innocent people to achieve political objectives. And it's a hard fight, and requires different tactics. And it requires solid will from those of us who understand the stakes.”
. . . . . .. .
“And you asked about Iran? What did you say about them? My answer was too long to remember the third part of your multipart question. “
Q I'm sorry. How can the international force or the United States, if necessary, prevent Iran from resupplying Hezbollah?
THE PRESIDENT: “The first step is -- and part of the mandate in the U.N. resolution was to secure Syria's borders. Iran is able to ship weapons to Hezbollah through Syria. Secondly is to deal -- is to help seal off the ports around Lebanon. In other words, there's -- part of the mandate and part of the mission of the troops, the UNIFIL troops will be to seal off the Syrian border.
“But, as well, there's a diplomatic mission that needs to be accomplished. The world must now recognize that it's Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah that exacerbated the situation in the Middle East. People are greatly concerned about the loss of innocent life, as are the Americans -- American people. We care deeply about that, the fact that innocents lost their life. But it's very important to remember how this all happened. And Hezbollah has been emboldened because of its state sponsors.
“I know they claim they didn't have anything to do with it, but sophisticated weaponry ended up in the hands of Hezbollah fighters, and many assume, and many believe that that weaponry came from Iran through Syria.
“And so the task is more than just helping the Siniora government; the task is also -- and the task is not just America's alone, the task is the world's. And that is to continually remind the Iranians of their obligations, their obligations not to develop a nuclear weapons program, their obligations not to foster terrorism and promote terrorism.
And we'll continue working with our partners to do that, just that.”
The President’s statement, like so many of his statements on Iraq, insists that eventually the population of the Middle East will see things our way. He apparently believes this despite the lack of any evidence that they do, or that his policies are doing anything but making them more anti-American. More serious is his statement that the international force could help seal the Syrian-Lebanese border, which it has no intention, according to published reports, of doing.
Ironically, these statements begin to recognize, in a backhanded fashion, that the United States cannot accomplish all that much in the world without an international consensus behind it. That is why the foreign policy establishment has opposed the thrust of Bush Administration foreign policy from the beginning, and events are proving them right. Unfortunately, the neoconservatives in and around the Administration still hold a strong contempt for international opinion, and I am wondering, indeed, how long it will take for Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and company to start blasting the deal as appeasement. (So far Kristol has been silent and Krauthammer, while disappointed, clearly remains hopeful.) Rather than actually take internatonal opinion seriously, however, the Bush Administration will probably continue to assume, rhetorically, that the rest of the world is bound to see the light.
What does all this mean for the future? I see two possibilities. In the first, the United States government will continue to mouth the same platitudes for two more years while the situation in Iraq, Lebanon, and very likely elsewhere continues to deteriorate. American troops will almost certainly remain in Iraq (although there are indications of a possible Iraqi-American crisis there, as leaders of the Iraqi government increasingly state that they are almost ready to take over responsibility for security from the Americans.) Hezbollah will establish some modus vivendi with the international force and the Lebanese Army. If Israel withdraws they will claim another enormous victory—and for that reason alone, I would guess, an Israeli withdrawal is not imminent.
But the second possibility is that the President and Secretary of State take seriously the implication of their statements (and the President’s accidentally recorded remarks to Tony Blair) that the real problem is not Hezbollah, but Syria and Iran. That is an oversimplification. Hezbollah is an authentic popular movement that has won thousands of hearts and minds by meeting the needs of Shi’ite Muslims in various parts of the world, including in Lebanon. Syria’s presence in Lebanon, which we insisted on ending several years ago, probably kept a lid on Hezbollah—the kind of subtlety that the present Administration simply cannot grasp. But the crisis has worked to Iran’s benefit, and a new crisis looms over its uranium enrichment program. Perhaps Seymour Hersh, who last week reported that the Administration viewed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon as a dry run for an American attack on Iran, is right, and the Administration regards an attempt to topple Iran from the air as the only real solution to the problems of the Middle East. In an earlier report Hersh claimed that some Administration figures actually believe that bombing Iran would sour the people on their rulers—a fantasy parallel to the one trumpeted by the President and Secretary of State last week, that the Lebanese people will realize that it was Hezbollah that brought so much destruction upon them. (In a variant of this idea, an Israeli general was quoted during the fighting as saying that the bombing of Lebanon’s infrastructure was designed to show the Lebanese elite that their lives would be miserable as long as they tolerated Hezbollah.) Certainly the outcome of the war in Lebanon does not bode well for the consequences of an attack on Iran. But the logic of the Administration’s position is driving it inexorably towards another war, and so far, it has been quite consistent about how it sees the problems of the Middle East and what should be done about them—to eliminate those regimes that supposedly stand in the way of the spread of democracy.