Diplomacy in Slow Motion

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with President George W. Bush

If warfare is a violent contest of political will, then cease-fire agreements are its scoreboards. And the Bush Administration wants to make sure that when hostilities are halted in Lebanon, Hizballah's score is a round zero. That's why even as most of the international community clamors for an immediate cease-fire to end the fighting that has so far killed 300 Lebanese (mostly civilians) and 29 Israelis (15 of them civilians), the U.S. is dragging its feet — as a matter of policy. While other Western and Arab powers will engage players from Hizballah and the Lebanese government to Iran and Syria, the U.S. remains key to the diplomatic process — for the simple reason that it is the only one capable of persuading Israel to accept a truce. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won't head for the region until early next week, a delay calculated to give Israel more time to succeed in its objective of eliminating Hizballah as a military threat. A senior Administration official told CNN Wednesday that the U.S. was giving Israel's military operation time to "defang" Hizballah, saying Rice would press for an end to the fighting only "when conditions are conducive to do so."

The Administration recognizes that anything short of what it calls "a permanent cessation of hostilities," in which Hizballah is deprived of the means of restarting them, will be counted as a victory for the radical Shi'ite movement. Having acknowledged that the Lebanese government is too weak to disarm Hizballah, as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, the Administration views Israel's military campaign as the best way to achieve the same outcome, by pummeling Hizballah until it is ready to put down its weapons and allow the Lebanese army to take control of the border.

But Secretary Rice, who heads for New York Friday to coordinate activities with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, will face pressure from diplomatic allies who want an immediate cease-fire. European, Arab and U.N. diplomats share the goal of a deal that not only frees the two captive Israeli soldiers and stops Hizballah rocket fire, but also puts the Lebanese army in control of its southern border, protects Israel from further provocations and pursues the disarmament of Hizballah. But they're not convinced those goals can be achieved through a military campaign that has destroyed much of Lebanon's communication infrastructure and energy supplies, and looks likely to send hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into an already tense and overburdened Beirut. The Israelis are hoping their retaliation for Hizballah's blatant provocation will turn the majority of Lebanese more forcefully against the Iran-backed group, which retains massive popular support among Lebanese Shi'ites. Even if that were to occur — which is far from certain — it could threaten a resumption of civil war, particularly if the Israeli offensive has weakened the already shaky central government.

Implicitly criticizing the U.S. delay in starting a peace mission, Annan's deputy, Mark Malloch Brown, on Wednesday stressed the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities. "The Middle East is littered with the results of people believing there are military solutions to political problems in the region," he told reporters.

But analyst Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies sees Rice's late entrance into the diplomatic fray as prudent: "At this point, both Hizballah and the Israelis feel they can advance their cause by turning the screw a few more times," he says. "That's not where you want to start a negotiation. You want to start when both sides are starting to look around and say, where's this really going?"

But it's more complicated than that, because there are many more with a stake in the outcome of the crisis than the two sides fighting. They include:

  • The U.S., which finds itself balancing its desire to see Hizballah "defanged" with some of its other regional interests that may be damaged by the fighting, and the rising pressure from most of its allies to expedite its intervention.

  • The Lebanese government — a fragile coalition at the best of times, whose leaders, though outraged at Hizballah's dragging them into war, nonetheless see Israel's campaign as threatening the democracy they've tentatively been constructing since a U.S.-led international campaign forced Syria to leave.

  • The pro-Western Arab regimes, who have, uncharacteristically, largely avoided criticizing the Israeli offensive — because they see the Hizballah provocation as an Iranian power play in their backyard — but whose citizenry hail HIzballah as a champion of the battered Palestinians. Nowhere will the street-level passions stoked by Israel's campaign be more fierce than in Iraq, where Shi'ite followers of Muqtada al-Sadr are already rallying in support of Hizballah.

  • Iran and Syria, the key regional sponsors of Hizballah, who each arguably have their own reasons for wanting to see the crisis first escalated, then resolved on terms favorable to Hizballah.

  • Washington's European allies, many of whom fear the U.S. is gambling recklessly on Israel's being able to achieve its military objectives, at risk of the crisis spiraling out of control and creating a humanitarian and political disaster.

    If the gamble pays off, and Hizballah is crying uncle a week from now, the U.S. will have vindicated itself in the eyes of allies, and inflicted a stinging defeat on the likes of Iran and Syria. If not, the Bush Administration may find itself drawn into some hitherto unthinkable diplomatic minuets to untangle a dangerous mess in southern Lebanon.

    —With reporting by Elaine Shannon/Washington