Why US looks to others in Mideast crisis

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As attacks escalate between Israel and its militant nemesis Hizbullah, threatening the stability of Lebanon, the United States finds itself in a weaker position than in the past to act as calming agent.

The diplomatic void does not bode well for a quick resolution of the crisis, even if a United Nations delegation in the region steps into the breach. The Group of Eight leaders, meeting here outside St. Petersburg, Sunday threw their collective support behind that mission trying to end the flare-up in the region.

The lack of a US initiative in a region of traditional influence suggests the White Hose sees little to be gained from intervention at this time, but it also suggests how inattention to the region has left the US with few options.

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The reasons the US is watching this crisis from the sidelines are many: The Bush administration has been preoccupied with Iraq, it does not have diplomatic ties with the Middle Eastern countries that matter in this escalation, and it has been unwilling to pressure Israel to avoid military response when Tel Aviv's security is threatened. The US position represents a change from earlier days – such as the administration of the first President Bush, who enlisted diplomats like James Baker and Brent Skowcroft to ease tensions – when America brought pressure to bear on all parties, including Israel, to slam the Pandora's box back shut.

"The US has very little leverage over the situation, and all that does is underline that the US is weak and has lost the kind of influence it once had in the region," says Arthur Hughes, former director general of the Israel-Egypt multinational force and now a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "It's frightening to our partners, like Japan and Europe because, as they see it, the only thing worse than a US that is too strong is a US that is too weak."

At the G-8 meeting at a former retreat of Russian czars on the Gulf of Finland, the unanimous statement in response to the latest conflict read: "We offer our full support for the UN Secretary General's mission presently in the region." The mission's goal, said French President Jacques Chirac, is "looking for a lasting cease-fire."

The text does refer to Hizbullah as an "extremist element" and says "those that support" extremists "cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict." By emphasizing Hizbullah's responsibilities and its clear reference to sponsors Iran and Syria, the text closely reflects the US position.

History shows that if any nation has been able to influence events in the Middle East it is the US. But US influence has been dulled whenever it has taken a starkly different stand on the way ahead from that of its international partners.

This time, a divide among foreign powers had been apparent in their early statements. President Bush was fully supporting Israel, and other leaders, while backing Israel's right to defend itself, criticized an Israeli response they say is not commensurate with Hizbullah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers.

All members of the so-called Quartet of powers working to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – the US, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia – will be at the G-8 summit Monday, providing an opportunity for the international community to further refine its stance toward the spreading conflict.

A key factor will be to what extent the US will choose to reverse course – it has mostly remained disengaged from high-stakes diplomatic involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the Bush presidency – and assert itself. "It's true [Mr. Bush] has been rather busy with other things," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It hasn't been at the top of his agenda."

The unanimous statement on the current flareup may help to put Bush in closer alignment with his G-8 partners, at least in public. Last year Bush was the odd man out at a summit in Britain that focused on climate change.

But Israel's conflict with Hizbullah, and in particular Israeli strikes in Lebanon, had earlier divided the US from its partners.

In comments here, Bush made clear he lays full blame for tensions at the feet of Hizbullah – and with its sponsors Syria and Iran. The president says Israel is exercising its right to act in self-defense, although he did caution Israel to use "restraint."

Other leaders here, headed by summit host Vladimir Putin, had taken a different tack – condemning Hizbullah's abduction of Israeli soldiers, while also castigating Israel for responding disproportionately by bombing Lebanon, from which Hizbullah operates. Some also suggested Israel is using the tensions to pursue broader goals.

"One could ask if Monday there is not a sort of will to destroy Lebanon," President Chirac said before arriving here Saturday. Mr. Chirac's position stood out all the more, since the US and France had managed to overcome bitter differences over Iraq in part through deepened cooperation on Lebanon.

But Chirac also offered a veiled implication of Syria and Iran in inciting the new conflict – a position that aligns with the US view. "I have the feeling, if not the conviction, that Hamas and Hizbullah would not have taken the initiative alone," he added.

That convergence of perspectives offers a basis for international action, some experts say.

"The question now will be whether the Syrians and Iran can be pushed harder to call back the forces they've unleashed or face some real consequences, or if the direction will be something they'd like to see, like compromise on other issues to get their cooperation," says the Washington Institute's Clawson. "It's a real testing moment."

Syria and Iran are seen by many experts as having taken advantage of a moment when the US is preoccupied with Iraq and Israel was focused on Gaza to signal to the militant Shiite organization Hizbullah an opening to act. "The Syrians are saying, 'You've got to take account of us and our interests,' " says Mr. Hughes, describing a motivation that others assign to Iran as well.

The problem, as Hughes sees it, is that the means of pressuring the two countries are limited, especially when the US has only a "relationship of hostility" with either one. "The only people who can call [Hizbullah] back are the Iranians and Syrians," he says. "But what quids are there?"

Clawson says he was "amazed" to see Israel turn to Russia to make contact with Syria – a measure of the US's fallen standing in the region. But the US still might use the summit's multilateral environment to influence the turn of events on the ground, he says.

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