Put away your straw men. We won't hash out some sort of moral equivalence between Israel and Hezbollah, nor endlessly chew over what a "proportionate response" to Hezbollah might be.
The goal here is merely to start thinking about the idea that whatever Israel accomplishes in Lebanon (and we still do not know the actual aim), it might not be completely and unquestionably in the United States' best interests.
A selfishly American foreign policy need not stand in opposition to Israeli aims. It would simply recognize that the United States might, on occasion, need to look to its interests and merely be indifferent to how securing those interests might impact Israel.
For evidence that the Bush administration is reluctant to do this, look no further than Washington's oddly delayed—if not criminal—one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi effort to get American citizens out from underneath Israeli airstrikes. Sweden, using the new superpower assets of cell phone text messaging and chartered cruise ships, managed to get 5,000 Swedes out of Lebanon before the U.S. even had a plan to evacuate its citizens. Sweden did this without the benefit of an embassy in Beirut.
By contrast, it took nine days to get the Marines ashore to rescue Americans.
Days into the fighting the Bush administration seemed reluctant to embarrass the Israelis by suggesting, let alone confirming, that Israel's attacks against Hezbollah just might produce threats to the civilian population in Lebanon. If someone wants to argue that that reluctance was merely gross incompetence by the State Department, your call for Condi Rice's resignation needs to be part of that particular appeal to be considered serious.
But giving Israel the "atta-boy" treatment creates other serious problems for legitimate American interests. Already Turkey is explicitly citing Israel's unrestrained move into Lebanon as a precedent to move into Kurdistan. Turkey's Hezbollah is the Kurdish Workers Party (PPK) and Turkish forces have had running gun battles with their long-time foe in recent weeks.
The Turks are basically demanding that U.S. forces take out the Kurdish guerillas or the Turks will. But Kurdistan is the one corner of Iraq that is relatively peaceful and shows signs of one day becoming a functioning society that respects the rule of law, a rarity for the region. Even though the PPK does not enjoy widespread popular support among Iraqi Kurds, U.S. moves against it might complicate U.S. aims for Iraq.
The Kurdish angle alone, then, is solid footing upon which to craft a U.S. policy that is something other than, "Whatever Israel wants." It is also worth noting that nascent links between Kurdistan and Israel did not stand in the way of Israel doing what it thought it had to do to secure its aims. But there is more.
Part of Britain's reluctance to go as far as the U.S. in backing Israel without reservation no doubt stems from the placement of 7,000 British troops in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq. Were there to be some sort of sympathetic Shiite response to Hezbollah's fight against Israel, the area around Basra would be one of the first places in the region you'd look for it.
Sure enough, the past few days have seen clashes between the Mahdi army of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and British forces. The British foreign ministry has strenuously tried to beat back any linkage between the two conflicts, but has been tripped up by the issue of Iranian involvement in both.
As cable news analysts and The Weekly Standard never tire of pointing out, Iran is up to its eyeballs in Hezbollah. And the British have cited Iranian fingerprints in aiding Shiite militants in Iraq. The British press then put two and two together and deduced that Iran is calling the shots in both cases. "No" came the answer from the Blair government, an odd denial that nonetheless points exactly at a central question of this burgeoning conflict.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page almost gets the question right, but lets its obsession with removing the mullahs from power in Tehran blind it to the best U.S. response. The paper correctly sees the regional strategic implications of the fight in Lebanon, but assumes it is "Iran's first strike" in a bid to secure nuclear capability for itself. Consequently, the Journal prescribes the wrong solution, a free hand for Israel against Hezbollah:
The question going forward is whether the Bush Administration will acknowledge this Lebanon conflict as the strategic threat it is and fight back accordingly. That means at a minimum allowing our ally in the region, Israel, the time and diplomatic support to deal Iran's Hezbollah proxies a heavy blow.
But what if Iran has decided to cash its Hezbollah chips? What if it is counting on an all-out Israeli effort to destroy those elements? There are at least two very good reasons why Iran would do this: One, the Shiite population and militias in Iraq offer a better, improved opportunity to spread mayhem not against a U.S. ally like Israel, but against the U.S. itself. If Iran is truly Terror, Inc., think of it as closing down one aging if profitable product line while introducing the next big thing.
And second, the Israeli operation in Lebanon may create more terrorists than it destroys, or at least create opinion in the Muslim world more useful to Iran strategically than an ongoing low-level conflict along Israel's border. There is certainly historical precedent for a Hezbollah-Israeli clash in Lebanon inspiring Muslim terrorists the world over.
Back in April 1996 Israeli artillery hit a U.N. compound in Qana crowded with Lebanese refugees;106 people were killed. Israel said it was trying to hit a nearby Hezbollah mortar site and mistakenly used old maps; a U.N. investigation found the attack was "unlikely" to be completely in error. Take your pick, but that is what happens in war fought among civilians—murderous mistakes. By August of that year Osama bin Laden cited "the massacre of Qana" prominently in his first fatwa against the U.S government.
The current round of fighting is certainly grim, horrifying even, for the civilian population, but there has been no singular Qana-like incident. Yet.
We are left then with two distinct areas where U.S. interests might diverge with those of Israel. First, it makes U.S. goals in Iraq harder to achieve. Second, it may give Iran something more valuable than a guerilla force in Lebanon while increasing the total population of persons motivated to do harm to do Americans and American interests.
These things are not certain to transpire and may, in any event, be considered second-tier concerns when weighed against the chance to take out Hezbollah as a military force. Fair enough. But it is past time to put down the pom-poms and think hard about what comes next.