The Wisdom Of Retreat

By Sebastian Mallaby (THE WASHINGTON POST, 31/07/06):

Even before the death toll spiked yesterday, the Bush administration's diplomacy on Lebanon looked like a long shot. The goal, as laid out by administration officials, is to secure a cease-fire that removes the threat that Hezbollah poses to Israel. But Hezbollah's central function is to threaten Israel; that is the purpose for which Iran and Syria sustain it. Hezbollah is unlikely to renounce its reason for existence in the course of a negotiation. And the promised international peacekeepers will be hard-pressed to contain a militia that has proved capable of resisting Israel.

If its diplomacy fails, the Bush administration will have to face the dilemma that it's now avoiding: whether to support an indefinite cease-fire that goes beyond the 48-hour suspension of airstrikes announced yesterday but does not neutralize Hezbollah. To support such an outcome would be to retreat publicly. It would boost the prestige of extremists in the Middle East and encourage Iran to defy the West over its nuclear program. Yet refusing to support an imperfect cease-fire would be a greater error, for it would involve disregarding three lessons that emerge from the administration's own record.

The first lesson is that allies do matter, and so does the global public opinion that creates, or fails to create, a political climate in which governments feel able to work with the United States. The Bush administration has at times skated past this truth, correctly believing that doing the right thing can matter more than doing the popular thing. But it has learned, slowly and painfully, that doing right gets to be impossible if your unpopularity becomes toxic. To address any major foreign policy challenge, from Iran to North Korea to Darfur, you need international backing.

In supporting the bombardment of Lebanon, the administration appears to be forgetting this lesson. It has embraced a military operation that puts pictures of bloodied civilians on the world's TV screens, harming the United States' image and disrupting vital U.S. policies. American allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, which fear Shiite militancy, have switched from criticizing Hezbollah to criticizing the U.S.-backed retaliation. American enemies are seizing the opportunity for a propaganda victory. Al-Qaeda has rushed out a new video, complete with a fresh, studio-quality backdrop. China has hinted that U.S. blocking of an anti-Israel resolution last week at the United Nations would justify Chinese resistance to U.N. action against Iran's nuclear program.

The second lesson is that, just because European diplomats inhabit a fantasyland, it does not follow that the opposite to European policy is sound. This truth was ignored in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the French and others called for diplomatic containment of Saddam Hussein even though they themselves had undermined the sanctions option. This infuriating hypocrisy, and its obvious uselessness in dealing with a threat that Western intelligence agencies believed real, allowed the alternative policy offered by the Bush administration to escape scrutiny. U.S. officials spent their time explaining why the French option was unworkable -- an easy case to make. But they were not forced to answer enough questions about whether the intelligence on Iraq's weapons program was solid or whether they were prepared for the challenges of democratic reconstruction.

The danger now is that the administration's Lebanon policy will get a similarly easy ride. Some European governments are saying that international peacekeepers must be deployed only with Hezbollah's agreement and that they should not even try to disarm the militia against its will. But we already have this polite sort of peacekeeping force in Lebanon, and it has stood by uselessly as Hezbollah has accumulated truckloads of missiles. Once again, the fecklessness of Europe may give administration officials a pass. It is a distraction from the hard questions about the wisdom of the U.S. policy: unflinching support for the Israeli offensive.

Which brings us to the third foreign policy lesson: Wars are more easily begun than won. It's not only Iraq that illustrates this; just look at Afghanistan, where the Taliban fights on. But the Bush administration, having apparently learned skepticism of military options since the Iraq imbroglio, veered back toward credulity when it came to Lebanon.

It is hard to see how Israeli troops can succeed in uprooting Hezbollah. Assume that the war begins to go better for them, and that they fight village by village until they destroy the militia infrastructure. But what comes after that? The Israelis will leave, allowing the pro-Hezbollah Shiite population to reclaim their land -- and opening the way for Iran and Syria to resupply military cells with cash and weapons. This prospect logically leads some analysts to advocate action against Syria and Iran. But what action? There's no international support for serious sanctions. And not even the Bush administration is talking about military strikes on Damascus or Tehran.

Just as in Iraq, the United States is supporting a war that is defensible in concept. Yes, it was Hezbollah that provoked this fight. Yes, destroying this militant state-within-a-state would be a boon not just for Israeli security but for Lebanese democracy. And yes, the diplomatic options for dealing with Hezbollah promise no quick progress. But Iraq surely teaches that wars must be more than defensible in concept. Wars are only defensible if they can be won.