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24 July 2006

The US response: mind-boggling mayhem

By Andrew Stephen

Even the most ardent supporters of Israel in Washington to whom I spoke after the infamous Bush/Blair open-microphone discussion were laughing, literally, at what Bush had said. “So, having kicked the Syrians out of Lebanon and given it democracy, are we going to have the Syrians go back into Lebanon and tell the Lebanese to cut this shit out?” one prominent friend of mine, often described publicly as a Zionist, asked rhetorically. To George W Bush, “they” – in this case, the endlessly maligned UN, of which few Americans realise the US itself is by far the most powerful and influential member – had to “make something happen”. And, what is more, the boy emperor felt like picking up the phone to read the riot act to Kofi Annan and tell him so.

No policy, no dialogue

If I sound light-hearted about Bush’s response to what is happening in Lebanon and Israel, I do not mean to. A former member of the Reagan administration summed it up for me from a Republican, but not Bushite, point of view: “The only country we have leverage with right now is Israel, and the only thing we can do is let ’em go at it to the point where Hezbollah cries uncle and then we can call ’em off.” The US itself could not put pressure on Syria, Lebanon or Iran – let alone on Hezbollah or Hamas – he added, because “we’ve had no policy, or real dialogue, with any of these countries for five years. Now we’re paying the price.”

Or, more accurately, the people of the Middle East are paying the price. We hear grandiose descriptions of how the Bush “doctrine” or “vision” has collapsed, along with his “cowboy diplomacy”. The tragedy is that there never was any kind of Bush vision, doctrine or diplomacy other than an insouciant certainty in American supremacy; solutions to tricky problems lay in the hands of “them”, whoever they happened to be at any given time.

For me, that sheer haplessness was underlined when I spoke on Sunday to Martin Indyk, Clinton’s ambassador to Israel during the Rabin and intifida years: “This is not like 1982, when after six months of Israeli bombardment [the PLO] finally cried uncle and the Lebanese said ‘please go’ and they just picked [sic] up and left,” he told me.

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A divided America?

“These guys [Hezbollah] are home and they ain’t going anywhere,” he added. “Their militia is stronger than the Lebanese army. They’re in government, in the cabinet and in parliament, courtesy of Bush.

“So how do you create the circumstances in which they are sufficiently weakened that they accept what will be tantamount to a humiliating defeat? It’s hard to see how that’s going to happen.”

For the Democrats, Senator Joe Biden has dared to suggest that Israel “may have gone too far” – but that is about the extent of the criticism being levelled here so far against Israel. “As long as the US president says Israel has the right to defend itself, that’s enough, that sets the tone for public opinion,” Indyk told me. “But if it goes on for months, and the Israelis bomb Beirut day after day after day, it’ll be a different story – and it could come to that.”

So could this be the outcome of the current mayhem? An America, for the first time in history, divided over Israel? That would have been truly impossible to visualise five years ago, and the repercussions for the entire Middle East would be mind-boggling.

But George W Bush might just have pulled it off.

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