Lebanon pact disappoints U.S.

Bush administration wanted Israeli forces to destroy Hezbollah

August 15, 2006|By PETER WALLSTEN | PETER WALLSTEN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- For weeks, the Bush administration resisted international pressure for a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, insisting that only disarming the terrorist organization would cure a "root cause" of hostility and prevent yet another failed peace agreement.

But the truce that took effect yesterday - coming without the destruction of Hezbollah's military threat and an unclear path to its disarmament - marks a far less dramatic conclusion than many in the Bush administration had hoped for when the fighting began last month.

Rather than framing the conflict in Israel and Lebanon as another front in President Bush's broad agenda to promote democracy and eliminate terrorism, U.S. officials were forced to face the realities of a mounting civilian death toll in Lebanon and Israel's inability - or unwillingness - to deal the Shiite Muslim militant organization a knockout blow.

"It's been not a failure but a massive disappointment," said Edward N. Luttwak, who served as a policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Several experts called the U.S.-backed United Nations resolution a "considerable scaling back" of the administration's aspirations.

"They want to change the world," said Edward S. Walker Jr., an ambassador to Israel and Egypt in the 1990s and now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. "And in this case, they found that there are limits to what you can do to change things."

Bush sought yesterday to portray the U.N. deal as a success, calling U.S. efforts with Israel and Lebanon part of a "forward strategy of freedom in the broader Middle East." He said the pact marked a "defeat" for Hezbollah, which would lose its ability to function as a "state within a state" in southern Lebanon.

But when asked how the resolution would weaken Hezbollah and cut it off from its sponsors in Iran and Syria, the president could make no assurances.

"Our hope is that this series of resolutions that gets passed gets after the root cause," Bush said, after a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "We want peace. We're not interested in process. What we want is results."

But many analysts said the U.N. resolution is vague about how Hezbollah would be tamed. The agreement also is vague, they said, about how Iran and Syria would be prevented from continuing to send weapons, including rockets, to Hezbollah. And though the pact calls for Hezbollah to leave southern Lebanon, it remains unclear how the group would be stopped from operating north of the Litani River, about 20 miles from the Israeli border.

The U.N. agreement is only the most recent example in which Bush's second-term doctrine of spreading freedom has run into the realities of international and domestic politics. Even before the U.N. resolution took shape, signs of waning U.S. credibility in the Middle East prompted Bush to conclude that placing U.S. troops on the front lines of a peacekeeping force in Lebanon would be counterproductive.

The Bush administration's scaled-back expectations for the U.N. resolution were reflected over the weekend in comments by officials who offered words of hope, but not the usual assurances of victory.

White House press secretary Tony Snow, for example, deflected questions about whether the Bush administration had hoped that Hezbollah would be defeated, saying only that "disarmament is something that will be the responsibility of the sovereign government of Lebanon, with the assistance of international forces.

When an Israeli radio interviewer asked over the weekend if Hezbollah would still be able to operate, Rice said only that the Lebanese government "has an obligation to start the disarmament of Hezbollah."

That cautionary language contrasted sharply with earlier messages, delivered when the Bush administration thought the Israeli military would cripple Hezbollah before agreeing to a cease-fire. On July 18, Bush predicted confidently that the conflict could be turned into a "moment of opportunity" to tackle root causes of terrorism and stabilize a young democracy in Lebanon.

Some analysts said the truce, with its lack of clarity on key points, could turn out to be exactly what Bush said he did not want. And many said Israel's failure to gain an outright victory has strengthened the political clout of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

Analysts said the Bush administration's new tone reflects the realization that its sweeping goals did not easily apply to the region - and that the U.S. agenda had begun to stray from that of Israel.

Some in the Bush administration wanted Israel to mount a major effort from the start to destroy Hezbollah. But Israel was facing a dicey political question over whether to commit thousands of troops when Hezbollah rockets were not causing mass destruction.

Instead, experts said, the Israelis attempted to inflict as much damage as possible through airstrikes.

At the same time, according to Israeli news accounts and a report in the Forward, a Jewish newspaper based in New York, Israel had hoped that the United States would forge high-level contacts with Syria in hopes of reaching Hezbollah - but the high- level contacts never came.

As it became clear that the Israelis were not going to wipe out Hezbollah, support in the White House shifted from the hard-liners, typically led by Vice President Dick Cheney, to the advocates for more diplomacy.

"Israel's hesitancy kind of took the wind out of the sails of the hard-liners," said Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Peter Wallsten writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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