Seize the moment

July 19, 2006

The attacks taking place in Israel and Lebanon have partially obscured the very bad news coming out of Iraq this week: brazen and lethally effective sectarian attacks, with scores of people executed in public spaces in broad daylight by unknown gunmen, as well as by the usual bomb blasts. Yesterday, the United Nations reported that 6,000 civilians were killed in Iraq in May and June. It's painfully clear that the Bush administration is still utterly lacking in ideas about how to bring this killing to an end. The hostilities at Israel's northern border have grabbed the world's attention - and the smart thing for President Bush to do would be to capitalize on that.

Here's how:

The dangers of escalation in Lebanon are frighteningly real, and the consequences of a wider Middle East war would be disastrous. With luck - and we use that word advisedly - the shock of what's happening in Lebanon could be used to concentrate minds throughout the region and beyond. The biggest threat to the Middle East is the insanity in Iraq. That country is already a catastrophe, but there's a bigger catastrophe waiting to happen if the conflict there continues on its current course and bursts its current bounds. Now is the time for Washington to enlist, cajole and beseech Iraq's newly alarmed neighbors to bring diplomatic, financial and moral pressure to bear in an effort to lessen the bloodshed. There needs to be a full-scale international push to prevent an explosion - an explosion of Sunnis against Shiites, of jihadists against the West, of the gun and the bomb against the structures of society throughout the Middle East.

Iran is part of the problem but Iran must also be part of the solution. The same goes for Saudi Arabia and for Turkey - and Syria, too. Mr. Bush seems to believe the United States can afford to give Syria a cold shoulder, but we don't share that confidence. The stakes are down - now is the time to use every resource available to prevent the uncontrollable spread of war.

This does not mean convening a conference around a big table. It means simultaneous efforts - through third parties and friends of friends and brokers both honest and dishonest, through back channels and front organizations - to focus regional and global attention on doing something about the war in Iraq. The scary conflict between Israel and Hezbollah should be the warning that leads to action. Success will require a skillful level of diplomacy that this administration has never displayed, but failure leading to disaster is the only alternative.

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