By the end of the 35-day Israel-Hezbollah conflict in southern Lebanon, the atmosphere in Washington had become stifling as political alarm bells clanged with ever increasing intensity. Doubtless sharpened by the terrorist threat in London, there was a growing sense that the many crises in the “new Middle East,” proudly midwifed by the administration of President George W. Bush, was rapidly spinning out of control, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the entire region and beyond.
The war between Israel and Hezbollah has, by virtually all accounts, inflamed and radicalized the Islamic world and rendered a larger regional conflagration much more likely. At the same time, the mounting death toll in Iraq seems to confirm the increasingly widespread view that Iraq is moving headlong toward civil war, if it isn’t already in one, as many regional experts have contended for some time. Last Wednesday a report was released showing that an unprecedented 1,815 bodies-90% of them the victims of violence-were brought to the Baghdad morgue in July, eclipsing the previous high established in June by some 250 deaths.
“Two full-blown crises, in Lebanon and Iraq, are merging into a single emergency,” noted Richard Holbrooke, Washington’s former UN ambassador, in an uncharacteristically alarming column in the August 10 Washington Post. The column’s title, “The Guns of August,” was a reference to a book about the diplomatic follies and indecisive battles that launched Europe into a devastating world war in 1914. “A chain reaction could spread quickly almost anywhere between Cairo and Bombay,” Holbrooke warned. “The combination of combustible elements poses the greatest threat to global stability since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, history’s only nuclear superpower confrontation.”
Holbrooke also pointed to other ill omens: Turkey’s growing impatience with developments in northern Iraq and its intimations that it is considering an invasion; the world’s largest anti-Israel demonstrations taking place in downtown Baghdad; the potential that Syria could be pulled into the conflict in Lebanon; the growing threat from a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan; and India’s threats to take punitive action against Pakistan for its alleged involvement in the recent Mumbai train bombings.
Particularly alarming to Holbrooke, as to a steadily growing number of Republican realists and other members of the traditional U.S. foreign policy elite, is the apparent complacency of the Bush administration in the face of these events.
Indeed, since the outbreak of the Lebanon crisis, several former top Republican policymakers -including Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush; Richard Armitage, George W. Bush’s former deputy secretary of state; and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations-have called publicly for a major reassessment of U.S. Mideast policy and of its conduct of the “global war on terror.”
Their common message is the necessity of pressing Israel for a quick ceasefire in Lebanon, of engaging directly with Syria and Iran on both Lebanon and Iraq, and of restarting a serious peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It has been echoed by leading Democrats, including former President Jimmy Carter; his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski; and former secretaries of state Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, as well as by Holbrooke himself.
To these appeals, however-as well as to the worsening of the twin crises themselves-the Bush administration has appeared largely deaf. “There is little public sign that the president and his top advisers recognize how close we are to a chain reaction, or that they have any larger strategy beyond tactical actions,” Holbrooke noted.
The one, at least partial, exception has been Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose State Department, largely a bastion of realism, has been under almost constant attack since the outset of the Lebanon crisis by the same coalition of neoconservatives, assertive nationalists, and Christian rightists-led by Vice President Dick Cheney-that spearheaded the drive to war in Iraq.
In the early stages of the latest war, Rice, who is also the only senior administration official who has been in constant communication with European and Arab leaders, was most outspoken about the importance of Israel exercising restraint and not attacking civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. She was reportedly infuriated when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert failed to follow through on a pledge to suspend aerial attacks for two days late last month.
Rice, a Scowcroft protégée, has supported talks with Syria on the crisis, and according to a recent account published in Insight magazine, a publication of the right-wing Washington Times, she has also argued in favor of engaging Iran.
Before the Lebanon crisis, Rice appeared to be successfully moving U.S. policy gradually, if fitfully, toward a more realist position, particularly with respect to Iran. But she has now run into a brick wall in the form of Bush himself, according to Insight.
“For the last 18 months, Condi was given nearly carte blanche in setting foreign policy guidelines,” it quoted one “senior government source” as saying. “All of a sudden, the president has a different opinion, and he wants the last word.”
Her problems, however, may not be confined to Bush, according to another report in the August 10 New York Times that suggested that Cheney and his mainly neoconservative advisers have become increasingly assertive in the latest crisis in support of Israel’s efforts to crush Hezbollah. (In fact, some of Cheney’s unofficial advisers, such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, have called for expanding the war to Syria and even Iran.)
In that respect, Rice’s current situation recalls the humiliation of her predecessor Colin Powell, who in early 2002 sought to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to halt Israel’s military offensive in the Palestinian territories, only to be undercut back home by Cheney and, perhaps ironically, by then-National Security Adviser Rice.
“She had as much to do with cutting his legs out from under him vis-à-vis the Middle East as anyone else-either through outright agreement with Cheney, or, at the minimum, complicity with his views so as to draw even closer to Bush,” according to retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s former chief of staff at the State Department.
That experience, of course, confirmed the demise of realist influence in Bush’s first term, at least with respect to the Middle East.
That Rice may now find herself in a similar position, having to contend with a resurgent Cheney-led coalition of hawks who are not so much complacent about the course of current events in the Middle East as convinced that their strategy of regional “transformation” by military means will be vindicated, is what is particularly alarming about the current situation.
“This whole business is nuts-unless, of course, you believe what the rumormongers are beginning to pass around,” wrote Wilkerson, in reference to the Lebanon war, in an e-mail exchange with the Inter Press Service. “[T]hat this entire affair was ginned up by Bush/Cheney and certain political leaders in Tel Aviv to give cover for the eventual attack by the United States on Iran. At first, I refused to believe what seemed to be such insanity. But I am not so certain any longer.”
Jim Lobe is a Right Web contributing writer and the Washington, DC bureau chief for the Inter Press Service, which published a version of this article.