PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- If you want to know how bad things really are in the Middle East, check out the private chat between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that was caught by a TV microphone in St. Petersburg, Russia, this week.
Mr. Bush was talking about efforts by U.N. officials sent by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to mediate a cease-fire between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. "What they [U.N. officials] need to do," Mr. Bush told Mr. Blair, "is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s---, and it's over. I felt like telling Kofi to get on the phone with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and make something happen."
In other words, the world's most powerful man was reduced to urging the head of a weak organization he disdains to check a Mideast conflict that could lead to regional war.
The president was correct in citing Syria (while oddly omitting Iran) as part of the problem. I doubt Hezbollah would have started this crisis without a green light from both of its sponsors, which supply it with funds and missiles. But Mr. Bush's words revealed how little influence the United States has in this crisis. And without strong U.S. intervention, it's hard to see who has the power to bring about an acceptable cease-fire.
Under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush or Bill Clinton, the United States would have dispatched a top-level emissary to visit Israel and the relevant Arab capitals to stop the fighting. These days, while the U.S. can exert strong influence (if it chooses) in Jerusalem, it has no leverage with the other capitals that matter: Damascus and Tehran. For all its strength, the United States is no longer the predominant player it once was in the Middle East.
Washington has had no diplomatic relations with Iran for decades and no ambassador in Syria since early 2005. (The administration expected the overthrow of Saddam Hussein to precipitate "regime change" in Syria and Iran. Some Bush officials still nourish unrealistic hopes that these regimes will implode in the near term.) That gives the Syrians and Iranians incentive to stir up trouble in Lebanon and elsewhere.
In recent years, U.S. diplomacy in the region has been notable for its absence. Preoccupied with Iraq, the United States pretty much bowed out of efforts to restart the Mideast peace process. The deteriorating situation in Iraq has undermined U.S. military credibility in the region. So if the United States has taken itself out of the game, who's going to defang Hezbollah?
Israel has every right to want Hezbollah's militia disbanded. But as Israeli bombers pound Lebanese infrastructure to a pulp and scores of innocent Lebanese civilians die, it's hard to see who will take away Hezbollah's weapons. The weak Lebanese government, although democratically elected and backed by the White House, does not have the power.
Nor, if history is any guide, will Israeli bombs destroy Hezbollah. This is not a conventional army that can be wiped out. The militia is deeply rooted among the 40 percent of Lebanese who are Shiites, because it delivers social services and gets credit for forcing Israeli troops to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000. Israel isn't likely to try again to establish a permanent buffer zone with ground troops; 18 years of occupation were too costly.
Moreover, a prolonged Israeli bombing campaign may build Lebanese support for Hezbollah, even among those who now oppose it.
As for the idea of a U.N. force that would patrol southern Lebanon and help the Lebanese army, I doubt many countries would send troops into a war zone. Which brings us back to the question: Can anyone make Hezbollah give up its rockets and missiles?
As Mr. Bush grasped, the answer probably lies in Damascus - and Tehran. The problem of Hezbollah requires a regional solution.
Some argue that Syria and Iran should be bombed. Neither Israel nor the Bush team seems inclined in that direction, for good reason.
But the crucial Mideast mediating role once played by the United States has atrophied. Mr. Bush can't get on the phone with the Syrian president and "make something happen," nor can Condoleezza Rice visit the capitals that matter.
No wonder a frustrated president was wishing Mr. Annan could save the day.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.