Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Bush Wants the Pounding of Hizbollah to be Felt in Iran

Alec Russell, The Telegraph:
The Bush administration made clear yesterday that it saw the crisis in the Middle East as an opportunity for the world to deal once and for all with Hizbollah and to rein in its sponsors, Iran and Syria. READ MORE

As the conflict moved into its fifth day it became increasingly apparent that Washington was willing to give Israel its head in its military campaign in the hope that it would finally extinguish the threat posed by America's old enemy, the Iranian-backed Shia group.

In an attempt to counter the charge that America had been too uncritical of Israel's military action, President George W Bush's aides yesterday stressed their concern for civilian casualties and worries over damage to infrastructure.

But they ruled out the idea of calling for a ceasefire, arguing that it would be a short-term measure that would only be followed by more attacks by Hizbollah.

Rather the time was ripe for a long-term solution, with the keys being the disarmament of the radical Shia group and unspecified consequences for two of America's oldest Middle Eastern foes, Teheran and Damascus. In short, they say, it is time "to drain the regional swamp of extremism".

"This is a complex time, a worrying time, a time of great concern about the toll on civilians," said Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state.

"It is also a time when we have an opportunity to lay a foundation … for a permanent cessation of violence."

The unofficial US strategy seems to be to rely on a combination of "muscular diplomacy" and Israeli military might.

The Bush administration bolsters its argument by citing the need finally to realise the outstanding goals of UN Resolution 1559, which calls for the disbanding of regional militias. White House aides say that several key regional leaders have the same aspiration, born of the desire to rein in Iran's regional network.

One of the principal difficulties for the US is that the Israeli forces will, as so often before, be so heavy-handed that they hand a diplomatic victory to their opponents.

Ms Rice said US officials had stressed to Israel the need for restraint and also the risk of undermining the fledgling democratic government in Lebanon. But she refused to be drawn when asked if America had a "tipping point" at which civilian casualties would no longer be acceptable.

Reprising the Bush regional philosophy, she sought to present the crisis as the fruit of years of international failure to rein in "extremists".

"We are at an important juncture right now because extremists have showed their hand. And they've showed that their sponsors are in Teheran and in Damascus. Things are clarified right now."

Administration hawks see this as a key moment in the protracted showdown with Iran. Officials in Washington have been growing frustrated at the failure of diplomatic efforts to quash Iran's nuclear ambitions.

With 130,000 American troops bogged down on Iran's border, and America's motives in the region regarded with huge suspicion following its push for the war in Iraq, Ms Rice has persuaded Mr Bush that the US hawks have to be held in check.

But now, the Bush administration sees a dual opportunity to intensify the pressure on Iran.

Last night it appeared that America was winning support in its bid to use "muscular diplomacy" backed up by Israeli might to punish Hizbollah. France, a traditional powerbroker in Lebanon, also cited the need to realise Resolution 1559.

But securing support to punish Damascus and Teheran will be far harder, as was clear in the G8 summit statement on the crisis last night. There was no explicit reference to Syria or Iran. It cited only the threat posed by "those that support" extremist elements.