US Affairs: Seal of approval

Bush's strong support has given Israel a free hand in inflicting maximum damage.

George w bush 88 good (photo credit: )
George w bush 88 good
(photo credit: )
Israeli diplomats and Jewish advocates for Israel never had it so good. The outbreak of war between Israel and Hizbullah turned out to be an easy sell in America, with the administration giving Ehud Olmert's government a free hand to go ahead and take care of Hizbullah. Meanwhile Congress was declaring its unanimous support and even the American media - which Israelis and local Jewish activists complain about frequently - was pointing to Hizbullah as the party causing the provocations and to Israel as the side defending itself. The only complaints heard on TV networks were from Americans stranded in Lebanon, criticizing their own government for dragging its feet in evacuating them from Beirut. This strong US support for Israel's actions comes from the top. What seemed in the first days of the conflict to be just another demonstration of the administration's helplessness in facing international crises turned out to be a well-devised strategy led by the White House and State Department. It wasn't because President Bush was too busy with the G-8 gathering, nor was it the fact that the US has little power to pressure any of the sides in the region. The reason for the administration's inactivity was simply the belief that there was no need to intervene, that Israel was doing a fine job and that it deserved to be cut some slack to make the most of the military operation. But giving Israel leeway is not an expression of a sudden American belief that Middle Eastern countries should be left to their own devices. It is mainly a result of a combination of American interests and a sense that an opportunity is looming for getting some things straight in the troubled region. The advantages for the US from the Israeli operation are clear. First and foremost, Israel's weakening Hizbullah could eventually strengthen the Lebanese government and help establish Lebanon as the democratic success story that the US wants it to be. If the operation puts a yoke on Hizbullah, Lebanon can turn into a model for President Bush's policy of promoting democracy and serve to prove that at least in some cases, his doctrine can provide true democracy coupled with real stability. Other potential advantages for the US include turning the spotlight on Syria and Iran and presenting them to the world as sponsors of terrorism, a portrayal that can only help the American effort to isolate Damascus and Teheran and increase international pressure on both Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. THAT MIGHT be only the beginning. Veteran Middle East mediator Dennis Ross suggested this week that the surprising reaction of Saudi Arabia, condemning Hizbullah and blaming it for dragging Lebanon into war, could be the sign of a significant shift. According to Ross, the Saudi understanding that Iran is using the Lebanese conflict, and perhaps the Palestinian one too, for its own interest, can lead to a joint "Arab umbrella" in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan join forces to help strengthen the Lebanese government and keep Hizbullah sidelined. Further down the road this "umbrella" could maybe even take action to bolster the moderate forces in the Palestinian Authority to curb Hamas. Such a grand plan may be just a pipedream right now, but if the current conflict ends with anything similar to such a change in the reality on the ground, this would be the first and most important achievement the US has had regarding the Iranian issue for years. Yet at least for now, the idea of American diplomatic intervention is flatly rejected by the administration, sometimes even ridiculed. White House spokesman Tony Snow, when asked Wednesday why the US does not use its diplomatic might to engage with Syria, answered: "because their track record stinks." Later he went on to recall the pictures from the 80s and 90s of American emissaries sitting with the late Hafez Assad in his Damascus palace, sipping tea and listening for hours to his speeches on Greater Syria. "There is absolutely no reason to assume," Snow concluded, "that negotiations and conversations with the Syrians would yield any fruit." While the policy of waiting for Israel to do the work in Lebanon can prove to be valuable for the US, it also could conceivably blow up in America's face. As unpredictable as wars are, one stray rocket can cause huge destruction and plunge the region into a much larger military conflict, one that would cause the US to regret not intervening earlier to stop the fighting. Oil prices are also an issue, especially as mid-term elections in the US draw closer. While by the end of the week the price of oil fell back from the record high it reached on Monday, it is clear that the worse things get in the Middle East, the more Americans will pay at the pump. For Bush and the Republicans, frequently attacked for not doing enough to stop the US's dependency on foreign oil, a steep rise in oil prices could turn out to be quite a problem when Americans go to the polls in November. The other potential problem facing the administration is clashing with the international community. Bush has so far managed to keep all sides pleased by avoiding any pressure on Israel for a cease-fire, but at the same time showing a certain degree of openness to the idea of international intervention and of dispatching multinational forces to Lebanon. Bush can probably continue with this approach for the near future, as long as things on the ground remain as they are. But if this military conflict takes a turn for the worse and American TV screens suddenly are filled with images of killing and suffering, the pressure on Bush will mount and US diplomatic intervention will be inevitable.