Clueless in Condi-land

How clear is the U.S. endgame in Lebanon?

With the war in Lebanon one month old this week, the jury is still out on whether the Bush administration can call the Israeli military campaign it is actively supporting a success or failure. The country will not return to the status quo ante which existed before July 12, when Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in Israeli territory, and that's a good thing; but U.S. management of the diplomatic initiative since then has been halting, raising doubts again about whether the administration is better at launching bold initiatives than successfully seeing them through.

Time will tell how carefully the Americans and Israelis planned their riposte to Hezbollah's kidnapping of the Israelis. Two weeks ago, a Hezbollah spokesman, Mahmoud Komati, declared that the party had been surprised by Israel’s reaction. Many took this as an admission of error. It was more likely a self-serving effort to deflect blame away from Hezbollah for having provoked the conflict. After all, in a speech the same day, Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah declared that he had discovered that Israel intended to launch a major military operation in October. Therefore, he must have known that the Israeli government might engage in harsh retaliation before that deadline.

But Hezbollah's inconsistencies don't necessarily mean there was no Israeli-American collusion; there likely was. The real question is how comprehensive a plan both sides had, and how well advanced it was when Hezbollah decided to kidnap the Israelis. Nasrallah's point about the October deadline was that Hezbollah had pre-empted the Israelis, therefore forcing them into a fight advantageous to his combatants. He might have been spouting propaganda. But is it possible he was right?

The U.S. took 12 days to make a grand entry into the diplomacy of the war, then stalled. On July 24, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Beirut to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. She also presided over a lunch at the U.S. ambassador's residence, mainly with members of anti-Syrian groups--the so-called "March 14 movement." At that session, she announced that the U.S. wanted to create a 20-kilometer buffer zone in south Lebanon where an international force would be deployed. The Druze leader Walid Jumblatt reacted by saying that such a zone wouldn't prevent Hezbollah from firing over the peacekeepers' heads. Several of those present agreed, and Rice told her assistant secretary of state, David Welch, to take note of the comments. The American attitude then changed from advocating a thin buffer zone to bringing about the demilitarization of south Lebanon.

After Lebanon, Rice traveled to Israel, and planned to return to Beirut the following Sunday, July 30. However, when more than two-dozen people were killed in the bombing of a home in Qana that day, Siniora told her that he could not receive her before a full ceasefire was in place, and she cancelled her visit. This was followed by over a week of virtual political inaction in Washington.

Rice was caught in proliferating dilemmas. The administration wanted the Israelis to gain a decisive military advantage over Hezbollah before moving to negotiations. That meant delaying a ceasefire for as long as possible. However, delaying a ceasefire also meant allowing the carnage to continue, which discredited the U.S., but also the United Nations and the Siniora government, those parties expected to squeeze Hezbollah hardest on its disarmament and for a deployment of the Lebanese Army to the Israeli border. Rice also had to be careful that U.S. support for Israel would not embarrass Siniora, who was keen to see Hezbollah weakened, but who didn't want to be denounced as an American-Israeli agent.

Worse, Rice's Beirut stopover confirmed that the Bush administration wasn't sure about what it wanted to achieve. It took a Lebanese politician to make the obvious point that Hezbollah would not go along with an American-imposed peace plan and that a 20-kilometer buffer zone would be useless in protecting Israel; yet surely someone at Foggy Bottom could have told Rice that before she alighted in Beirut. And if her rather sudden default plan was a full demilitarization of the south, then who was supposed to implement such an ambitious scheme?

The answer was perhaps obvious to Rice: Israel. The only problem is that Israel wasn't much clearer about its ultimate aims than the U.S. Its first reaction to the abduction of its troops was to launch a vast air campaign directed against Lebanese infrastructure, particularly roads and bridges, and against predominantly Shiite areas. The point was to break Shiite morale, make it infinitely more difficult for Hezbollah to attack Israel in the future, since this would involve absorbing similar suffering, mobilize a majority of Lebanese society against the party's adventurism, and cut off rearmament routes between Syria and Hezbollah fighters.

The plan was partly successful. Hezbollah's vaunted deterrence capability, which was supposed to protect Iranian nuclear facilities from an American or Israeli attack, was used up to no real benefit. The party will indeed think twice before hitting Israel again, and given the massive devastation of Shiite areas, it will have to spend the next several years behaving more like the Salvation Army than a militant revolutionary movement if it wants to preserve its base of support. And Hezbollah's standing in Lebanese society has taken a massive tumble, with a firm consensus among many non-Shiites that it's time for the party to surrender its arms and join the system.

The thing is, the Israeli plan has to date failed to achieve much on the ground. Hezbollah continues to fire rockets into Israel, retains control over much of south Lebanon, and has leveraged this to claim it is defeating Israel. Nor are there signs the Israelis quite know what they want to do next, with the government of Ehud Olmert saying it might make a grand thrust into Lebanon, pushing Hezbollah to the Litani River, but also worried this might provoke casualties and drag Israel back into a quagmire. On Wednesday the long-awaited Israeli invasion seemed to have started; on Thursday, however, Olmert said he would allow more time for diplomacy. Some Israelis are criticizing the initial over-reliance on air power, while others say the government was never offered an operational plan by the military.

This is not good news for the Bush administration. If the gist of the American plan was to subcontract Hezbollah's military elimination to Israel (and is the flip side of this a future American attack against Iran?), the U.S. is now dependant on Israeli dynamics over which it has limited control. Indeed, as the Israeli planning stumbled forward, so too did American diplomacy. Earlier this week the administration and France agreed a draft U.N. resolution that would begin the process of resolving the crisis. Since then, the two sides have differed over a Lebanese desire to amend the proposal, and they are currently trying to reconcile their views. Whatever the merits or demerits of Lebanon's position, it was the Lebanese, not Rice, who appeared to be better playing the negotiation process.

The outcome of the Lebanon war remains very uncertain. The likelihood is that things will escalate much further before getting any better. Israel needs to prove to the U.S. that it can be militarily effective, while no one--not the international community, not the Arab states, not most non-Shiite Lebanese, and not the Siniora government--can afford to let Hezbollah, and the party's Svengali, Iran, emerge from the free-for-all in a better position. But in all this confusion it would be reassuring to know the Bush administration has a better grasp of the endgame. In fact exactly the opposite looks to be true.

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