Washington Watch: Shame falls on cedars

Bush falsely accused Obama of advocating appeasement while his own administration was doing just that.

douglas bloomfield224.88 (photo credit: )
douglas bloomfield224.88
(photo credit: )
News of Israeli-Syrian peace talks overshadowed the more ominous developments in Lebanon on the same day last week. Those negotiations, hosted by Turkey and not yet face-to-face, are months, if not years, from producing results, but the changes in Lebanon are happening right now. Syrian and Israeli leaders have strong political reasons to be seen talking peace but there is no hard evidence that the former is willing or the latter is able to cut a deal. In fact, a burgeoning corruption scandal could bring down the Israeli government before serious negotiations even get underway. But on Sunday this week the Lebanese political landscape was dramatically reshaped, and that was bad news for Israel and the United States. Former Army chief Michel Suleiman was elected president of Lebanon as part of a deal cut in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday that effectively gives Hizbullah control of the Beirut government, with all the power and none of the responsibility. That ended an 18-month standoff as the radical Shi'ite group took over central Beirut and effectively paralyzed the US-backed Lebanese government until it agreed to give the Hizbullah-led opposition one third of the Cabinet seats and a veto over government decisions and appointments. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, not President Suleiman or Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, is now the man really in charge of Lebanon. Siniora had earlier said such a deal would restore Syrian control of Lebanon, and that appears to be happening. The Doha deal is also a major victory for Hizbullah's Iranian patrons. Hamas, though not a party to the agreement, is another big winner because Hizbullah, Syria and Iran have been providing it weapons, training and funding - and now offer a model for its power struggle with Fatah in the Palestinian Authority. This tightens the squeeze on Israel with Shiite Islamists on its northern border and Sunni radicals in Gaza. The Hizbullah takeover will remove any remaining impediments to the free flow of arms from Syria and Iran into Lebanon, and UNIFIL will become even more powerless to prevent it, if that's possible. The new arrangement also raises questions about the military assistance the United States has been sending to the Lebanese Armed Forces and internal security forces, now running nearly $300 million annually and, before Doha, expected to go up. Sectarian tensions are likely to grow as Hizbullah tests the limits of its power in a country that long prided itself on its religious diversity and secularism. Look for an increase in the steady exodus of Lebanon's dwindling Christian population. ASIDE FROM the Lebanese people themselves, two big losers in last week's events were Israel and the United States. Israel was helpless to intervene in the Lebanese showdown, knowing any attempt would only have hurt those it wanted to help and could spark another war. For the Bush administration, the month of May alone saw several major setbacks for its Middle East policy. In addition to the Hizbullah victory in Lebanon, the President made little if any progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on his visit two weeks ago; Palestinian leaders snubbed him and wouldn't see him in Israel or the West Bank, only in Egypt. The Saudis rebuffed his personal plea for relief on oil prices (his second attempt in four months plus a visit from Vice President Dick Cheney). And, despite his attempts to isolate Damascus, the Israelis agreed to negotiations with Syria brokered by Turkey, leaving out Washington. The administration had strongly backed the Siniora government as a showcase for its democracy crusade, but that has now collapsed, putting the Lebanese government in the grip of a terror organization the United States holds responsible for killing hundreds of Americans, Israelis and others from Beirut to Buenos Aires. President Bush stood before the Knesset two weeks ago falsely accusing Sen. Barack Obama of advocating appeasement of "terrorists and radicals," while his own administration was doing just that this week by endorsing the Doha agreement that surrendered the nascent Lebanese democracy to Hizbullah. And this is real appeasement, not just rhetoric. Israeli analyst Barry Rubin compared Doha to the surrender of the Sudetenland to Hitler 70 years earlier. "Lebanon's brief period of independence has ended. Lebanon is now incorporated - at least in part and probably more in the future - into the Iranian bloc," he said. The Bush administration formally sanctioned the Doha agreement, declaring that it averted civil war, and the President said he hoped it "will usher in an era of political reconciliation" for the Lebanese and the new government would honor its international obligations. Even he knows that won't happen. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Doha "a positive step," and David Welch, her assistant secretary for Near East affairs, unconvincingly called it "necessary and positive." He said since Syria and Iran supported the agreement they should "exercise a more constructive role in Lebanon." If they do, perhaps we could have peace in our time. Would a McCain or Obama administration have done better? It's hard to tell, but it's difficult to see how either could have done worse.