Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Will the Cease Fire Hold? The US Role

The United States, as an editorial in Lebanon’s Daily Star infers, has little, if any concern for the welfare of the Lebanese. It permitted Israel to pursue its devastation of Lebanon at will and only bowed to international pressure for a cease-fire, when it was clear that continuing the war would enhance Hizbullah stature in the Middle East. Moreover, the US condones Israel’s continued sea and air blockade of Lebanon and other violations of the cease-fire. So no one in the Middle East believes the US is committed to the cease-fire any longer than it serves its tactical interests.

These interests are to block the expansion of Iranian influence and Hizbollah power in Lebanon. Their realization would give the US some traction in its struggles with pan-Islamists and Iran. However in pursuing them too aggressively, the US can damage the UNIFIL mission. It wants UNIFIL’s primary goals to be disarming Hizbullah and blocking arms shipments to it across the Syrian border. These are not specified goals for UNIFIL, under Resolution 1701. The Israelis excepted, nobody else wants to discuss them explicitly now. First, UNIFIL needs to deploy in strength and establish good working relations with the Lebanese government and army. But the Bush administration, desperate for a foreign policy achievement before the November elections, may not have the patience for that. It might loudly call for aggressive action by UNIFIL and submit a resolution to the UN Security Council saying so. Such a resolution would go nowhere, but the noise could help energize Bush’s anti-UN base to get out the vote. Unfortunately, it would also delay, possibly doom UNIFIL’s expanding its mission and its collaboration with the Lebanese government.

On the other hand, there are reasons why Bush and friends might bite their tongues. First, the neoconservatives around Bush know that Israel is not yet ready for a second round in Lebanon, much less for the war with Syria and Iran to which they hope the second round will lead. The neoconservatives also prefer to wait some months to see if Israel’s Olmert government falls, and a right-wing coalition headed by Netanyahu comes to power. That would make Israel leadership a more willing partner to their dreams. Second, the US State Department has begun some conversations with Syria to see what it wants to split from Iran. So with regard to this, rhetorical gestures or actions that force Syria to take a public stand would be counter productive. Third, the US’s undermining UNIFIL will upset Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states which see UNIFIL as protecting Lebanon against Israel. The US does need some support from these states for its political and possible military struggle against Iran.

On balance, the Bush administration has virtually no positve commitment to the cease-fire. I doubt that anyone in it particularly cares that if the cease fire breaks down and a second round ensues, Lebanon will be totally devastated and Israel will suffer damage. Indeed for the neonconservative, the cease fire is just a pause in a war they cast in theological terms as much as their enemy does. The Bush administration will give the cease-fire nominal support only because its few Arab friends in the region support it and Israel for now tolerates it. It will not, however, use its influence to have Israel observe the cease-fire, when Israel wants to violate it.


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