With U.S. on sidelines, hopes for peace fade

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Bush has something in common with his two nemeses, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Bashar Assad of Syria: All three nodded approvingly from the sidelines as their allies launched a fierce war across the Israeli-Lebanese border and in the Palestinian territories that has left hundreds of civilians dead amid scenes of destruction, dislocation and shattered lives.

Mr. Bush, backing Israel, ignored the international clamor for a hasty cease-fire, encouraging Israel's two-front assault against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. To his supporters, the United States and Israel are now joined more deeply than ever in a single, seamless war on terror, with Americans fighting extremists in Iraq and Israel facing them down in the Levant.


But how much of a favor is Mr. Bush doing, and has he done, for America's closest friend in the Middle East? And what lessons does he draw from the region's history of the last two decades?

As the exchange of bombs and missiles escalated over Lebanon and northern Israel, Mr. Bush emerged from a Group of Eight summit last week in St. Petersburg, Russia, claiming that the world's major leaders all agreed on the underlying source of the war.


"For the first time, we've really begun to address with clarity the root causes of the conflict, the recent conflict in the Middle East, and that is terrorist activity - namely, Hezbollah, that's housed and encouraged by Syria, financed by Iran," he said.

In fact, the G-8 took a longer view, which Mr. Bush approved and then immediately seemed to disavow: The leaders agreed that the "immediate crisis" stemmed from "efforts by extremist forces to destabilize the region." But they clearly stated: "The root cause of the problems in the region is the absence of a comprehensive Middle East peace."

Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Mr. Bush never assigned top priority to seeking a comprehensive regional peace. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton operated on the theory that such a peace would push extremists to the margins and help bring lasting security to Israel and its neighbors. To the administration that entered office in 2001, the "peace process" looked like a losing proposition, since Mr. Clinton had so recently and gloriously failed in his efforts.

Yet compared with now, Israel's immediate neighborhood in 2001 was more hospitable to diplomacy. When Mr. Bush assumed office, the dead from the second intifada numbered about 400. Now, the toll is ten times that. Suicide bombings were relatively infrequent; no Palestinian or Hezbollah missiles had hit major population centers. Hamas had yet to emerge as a dominant political force in the West Bank and Gaza. The dictatorship in Syria was beginning long-overdue internal reform. And Israel, complying with international law, had ended its long and unhappy occupation of southern Lebanon.

While Mr. Bush left Israel and its enemies to their own devices, dangers mounted, all fed by long-term grievances and hatred.

In the Palestinian territories, militants from several factions terrorized Israel with a campaign of suicide bombings. As a tense balance of terror prevailed on Israel's northern border, Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, cemented its hold on territory Israel had just vacated and gained domestic hero status for driving the Israelis out. Meanwhile, Israel implored Washington to share its growing alarm over Iran's nuclear threat.

The attacks of 9/11 awakened Mr. Bush to the region's furies, but he chose to confront them by invading and occupying Iraq, arguing that a new regime there would be an inspiring example of freedom for the region and could "begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace." When he added that "other regimes will be given a clear warning that support for terror will not be tolerated," Tehran and Damascus had reason to worry - for a while.

Now, with American forces unable to control the carnage in Iraq, al-Qaida undefeated, Osama bin Laden at large, the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan and Iran progressing with its nuclear program, Mr. Bush's regional transformation is not as advertised. Extremists are not only better armed and likely more numerous but also politically powerful.


Against a regional backdrop of bloodshed, distrust and fear, a spark can cause a conflagration. Israel was within its rights to retaliate for the capture of two soldiers by Hezbollah. But for its new government, led by a prime minister and defense minister without military experience, and with another fight on its hands, the timing was hardly propitious. As Lebanon becomes a punching bag, Israel risks losing the international favor it gained for its withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza.

This war is unlikely to eliminate either Hezbollah or Hamas. Even if crippled, both militant groups could slink back into the shadows from which they emerged in the 1980s and slowly regroup and rebuild. Israel does not seem to want to tackle their patrons in Iran and Syria. Mired in Iraq, the United States is hardly in a strong position to take up that challenge. Iran and Syria have other potential proxies in Iraq.

One regional bright spot was last year's diplomatic pressure - initiated by France - that forced Syrian forces out of Lebanon. But the move kept Hezbollah intact as a proxy for Syria and Iran to wield against Israel.

Under strong American leadership, Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinians could eventually draw on their resources of talent and entrepreneurship to develop a vibrant, mutually enriching Levant region. Israel would then have a variety of diplomatic and economic tools - not just force - to combat threats from near and far. That prospect grows fainter by the day as the current proxy war continues and the United States remains on the sidelines, refusing to recognize the actual "root cause."

Mark Matthews, a former diplomatic and Middle East reporter for The Sun, is writing a book about the United States and Israel.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is on vacation. His column will return in two weeks.