US Affairs: Walking a diplomatic tightrope

The US sees Lebanon as a test case for future challenges regarding Iran on the regional stage.

rice and livni 298 (photo credit: CNN [file])
rice and livni 298
(photo credit: CNN [file])
There was no sense of alarm or disappointment in Washington following the modest results reached at Wednesday's Rome summit. From the administration's standpoint, the Middle East diplomatic effort is proceeding just fine: The principle of favoring a "sustainable agreement," as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phrased it, over an immediate cease-fire was maintained, initial understandings on the issue of providing humanitarian assistance to Lebanon have been reached and the pressure on the international community to provide troops for a future force in southern Lebanon was turned up. American diplomacy seems to be moving ahead unaffected by the war being waged on the ground. Though all senior Bush administation officials have stated that there is an "urgent need" to solve the conflict, there is no sense of urgency on the diplomatic front. If there is one message to take home from Rice's first shuttle trip between Jerusalem, Beirut and Rome, it is that there is no force that can make the US depart from its predetermined course of action - not the growing demand in the Arab world to stop the fighting, not the UN's public disapproval of the ongoing air raids and not the calls coming from both ends of the political spectrum to use the US's diplomatic abilities more forcefully. For the US, Rice's shuttle diplomacy is beginning to bear fruit. The most important result is widening the international consensus concerning the outlines of any future solution for Lebanon. As the second week of the war drew to an end, there was widespread international agreement on the need to strengthen the Lebanese government, to control the country's borders so that arms won't reach Hizbullah, and to form an effective international force which will deploy in southern Lebanon and keep Hizbullah under control. True, all these principles were already agreed upon at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg at the beginning of the war, but now they have greater significance, with all parties joining in, even the Arab countries that participated in the Rome summit. Having Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan sign on to the G-8 principles can prove to be valuable in future weeks, as discussions on the Lebanon cease-fire package move forward. THE DISAGREEMENT between the US and the rest of the world over the need for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon overshadowed this achievement of the Rome summit, but for the administration, which anticipated the differences of views on the issue of an immediate cease-fire, widening the consensus on the G-8 principles is seen as much more important. The US views the international response to the Lebanon crisis in a broader context, regarding it as a test case for the ability of the world to stand up and join forces when a clear case of fighting terrorism presents itself. If Europe, moderate Arab countries and the UN waiver on the Lebanese issue, it will be a sign they can not be trusted on the greater challenges facing the region, mainly Iran. While the initial international response is seen in Washington as positive, the main stumbling bloc is forming the multinational force for Lebanon. With the US and Britain announcing they will not participate in the force, due to their already overstretched military needs in Iraq, other European countries were expected to take the lead. Yet they did so hesitatitingly - France expressed reluctance and finally agreed, Germany conditioned its participation on Hizbullah agreeing to have a foreign presence in southern Lebanon and Italy took a while with announcing its willingness to send troops for the future force. The vision of having Arab countries taking part in the multinational force dissolved quickly - though some in the administration still believe it will be possible to get Egypt on board - and now the US is pinning its hopes on Turkey. If Turkey, which has already signaled it will favorably consider participating in the force, will actually join in, the US will be able to show the world that a Moslem country is taking part in ensuring Hizbullah does not take over Lebanon and that it is not merely another Western attempt to dictate policy to an Arab country. Still, it is not yet clear whether Lebanon and Hizbullah will accept the international force and allow it to operate. If the terms of the force's deployment are limited by the Lebanese, it will be hard to get Israel and the US to buy into the idea and the cease-fire will grow even more elusive. FROM ISRAEL'S standpoint, the US's unhurried approach regarding the cease-fire signals that nothing has changed. Two weeks into the war and Washington and Jerusalem are still on the same page. "The big question," says David Makovsky from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "is if there is any understanding between Israel and the US on the point in which Israel stops the operation and moves on to the diplomatic phase." It is not clear that such an understanding exists, yet meanwhile, it has not been tested. The Bush administration is continuing its delicate balancing act of allowing Israel to go ahead with its military operation, while trying to demonstrate some kind of diplomatic activity. When Bush and Rice met with the Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal last weekend in Washington, they heard from their guest that the Arab condemnation of Hizbullah's actions of should not be interpreted as a green light for the continuation of the Israeli operation and that to maintain Arab legitimacy for a future solution which will rein in Hizbullah, there needed to be an immediate cease-fire. The Saudis also emphasized the need to go back to the 1989 Taif agreement, an Arab blueprint for freeing Lebanon from foreign influence. Even after listening to the Saudi warnings, Bush did not accept the concept of a cease-fire now. Instead, the administration increased its efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Lebanon to show that Washington is not blind to the Lebanese population's suffering. The only threat that seems to resonate in Washington is that of the collapse of the Lebanese government. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora already warned he would resign if the Israeli attack is not halted, but was convinced to stay on. Such a move would be a major blow for the US administration, which views Saniora's government as the only - somewhat - successful example of the Middle East democracy doctrine. Any future agreement would be tailored by the US to strengthen the government in Beirut, allowing Saniora to present to his people - once the fighting is over - a generous rebuilding package sponsored by the US and Europe and enabling him to use the new flow of money and the multinational force in the south to build his political power and assert the government's sovereignty over the country. But that is the long-term plan. To get there, the US needs to cross its fingers that all sides will stick to the script - the Israelis need to keep things under control, the Lebanese government needs to endure a few more days or weeks, and the international community has to keep its pressure for a cease-fire measured. That is a pretty long wish list, even for a world superpower.