WASHINGTON—In a departure from almost 60 years of American Middle East policy, the Bush administration hasn't intervened to stop the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah or made a serious effort to negotiate a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The White House instead has sought to transform the region by ousting or isolating regimes that support terrorism and by promoting democracy. It argues that past administrations' attempts to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East have failed and that more radical change is needed.
In the latest crisis in Lebanon, where Israel has been battering Lebanon-based Hezbollah, President Bush has placed a premium on weakening or dismantling Hezbollah, rather than stopping the violence.
So far, however, democracy in Lebanon hasn't resulted in the elimination of Hezbollah; instead, the militant group has been strengthened by elections. And withholding U.S. shuttle diplomacy while allowing Israel to proceed with military force could end up increasing support not only for Hezbollah but also for al-Qaida and other Islamist militant groups.
"Everybody abhors the loss of innocent life," Bush said Tuesday. "On the other hand, what we recognize is that the root cause of the problem is Hezbollah. And that problem must be addressed internationally by making it clear to Syria that they've got to stop their support to Hezbollah."
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton, said it will be difficult to disband Hezbollah's militia because the Lebanese government is too weak to do it and because the Bush administration has all but shut off diplomacy with Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's main sponsors.
"In effect, the administration is left with only one source of leverage, and that is Israel's use of force," Indyk said at a briefing Monday at the Brookings Institution, where he directs Mideast policy research.
But Israel's bombardment of Hezbollah in Lebanon is killing many Lebanese civilians and destroying Lebanon's transportation infrastructure. Hezbollah will be weakened, but many Lebanese will be angry not with Hezbollah but with Israel, Indyk said. He called for a diplomatic solution.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was consulting with leaders and foreign ministers in the region and plans to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday. On Friday, she's expected to meet with a U.N. team that's just returned from the region.
"She'll integrate what she hears into her thinking about the diplomatic way forward," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday.
So far, however, the White House's decision not to step in to halt the escalating battle between Israel and Hezbollah is a sharp departure from six decades of U.S.-Middle East diplomacy.
U.S. presidents stepped in to stop fighting between Israel and Egypt, Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and to end an Israeli siege of Beirut.
"If you had a flare-up, you got both the sides to stand down and find a diplomatic solution," said Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, who served in national security positions under Clinton and the first President Bush. "I think this administration has gone out of its way not to get involved in Arab-Israeli things. They're now scrambling to figure out what to do."
The White House's inaction on the Israeli-Hezbollah and Israeli-Palestinian issues, however, is consistent with its belief that the goal of American Mideast policy shouldn't be keeping the peace but transforming the region by destabilizing, defeating or overthrowing groups and regimes that practice or support terrorism and are hostile to Israel.
"That's the big idea that was behind the invasion of Iraq, it's the reason they won't talk to Syria or Iran or Hamas, and now it's the reason they're giving the Israelis time and space to try to destroy Hezbollah," said a veteran U.S. diplomat who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because "if you print my name, it'll be the end of my career."
The trouble with the policy is "it won't work," said the official. That view was shared by a half-dozen other current and former foreign policy and intelligence officials, all of whom requested anonymity for the same reason.
The Israelis tried to remake Lebanon in 1982 and failed. U.S. attempts to transform Iraq and Afghanistan two decades later are in deep trouble.
As a result of elections, Hamas, the militant group that stands for Israel's destruction, took control of the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah has members in the Lebanese National Assembly and Cabinet, and Shiite Muslim parties allied with Iran hold power in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the administration's decision to shun Iran, Hamas and Syria has left it with no contacts and little leverage in Tehran, the Palestinian territories or Damascus.
There's also a risk that militant groups will gain popular support as a result of the administration's indifference in brokering a settlement to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its unwillingness to stop Israel's attacks on Lebanon.
Other risks of a hands-off approach:
_Hezbollah could try to draw the Israelis into another ground campaign in Lebanon. That would be even more disastrous for the Lebanese people, the government and the economy, but it also would give Hezbollah militants new opportunities to kill Jews, recruit followers, become martyrs and muster wider support in Lebanon and beyond.
_If Israel's air strikes fail to stop Hezbollah from firing its large arsenal of crude rockets, the Israelis may be tempted to go to what both many Israelis and President Bush consider to be the source of the problem by attacking Syria. That could provoke a wider regional war and put an even greater squeeze on moderate Arab rulers such as Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who are caught among the U.S., the anti-Israeli attitudes of their people and the rising threat of Islamic militancy.
_American inaction creates a vacuum into which others—Russia or Iran, perhaps—could enter. Neither the United Nations nor the European Union has any leverage over Hezbollah or Israel, but Iran and Syria have reined in Hezbollah in the past.
If the administration does decide to engage, there's at least one avenue it could take that's consistent with its policy: pressuring Syria to halt its support for Hezbollah.
That wouldn't be easy. Syrian President Bashar Assad's survival would be at stake if he appeared to abandon Syria's proxy fight against Israel in Lebanon. But Syria's economy is weak—and growing weaker from the Israeli attacks on Lebanon—and vulnerable to pressure from Saudi Arabia, which has spoken out with unusual force against Hezbollah's recent acts, fearful that a wider war would bolster the Islamist militants opposed to Saudi rule.
A turnabout in Syria would finish Hezbollah as a serious military force, both within Lebanon and against Israel, by depriving the militants of Syrian backing and severing Hezbollah's resupply route, which runs from Iran through Damascus and over the mountains into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Renee Schoof contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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