G-8's 'to do' list eclipsed by crisis in Middle East

The summit ends with no clarity on how to curb Iran's nuclear aims. But leaders agree on need to intervene in Lebanon.

Their proceedings overtaken by expanding violence in the Middle East, leaders of G-8 countries ended their summit here Monday without any fresh call for Iran to heed international demands on its nuclear program. They did, however, issue a call for redoubled efforts to break an impasse on international talks to liberalize trade.

In many ways the annual meeting of leaders of the world's largest economies demonstrated how some of its most consequential work can take place not in prenegotiated documents on broad themes, but in side meetings and unscripted responses to sudden crises.

Response to the Middle East crisis was one example.

In the margins of formal meetings Monday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and then proposed that the United Nations send an international force to southern Lebanon. That is the only way, Mr. Blair said, to end hostilities in the mounting crisis involving Lebanon, Israel, and the radical Shiite group Hizbullah and its sponsors, Syria and Iran.

The next venue for discussion of that idea is the UN Security Council, after a peace mission sent to the region by Mr. Annan reports back, perhaps later this week.

A second example came from President Bush, who met with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, signaling America's growing relations with one of the 21st century's emerging powers. Mr. Singh was one of several leaders – including those of China, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa – who are not members but who were invited to participate on the summit's last day. The invitation is a recognition that the world is a different place from what it was when annual Group of Eight summits began in 1975.

The G-8 is often accused of being an inconsequential club, issuing meaningless documents that are soon forgotten. Or it is dismissed as reflecting a bygone era: Why is Italy a member while India or Brazil are not?

Few leaders and experts would challenge the idea that these are rough times for multinational institutions, with terror groups and radicalized states increasingly willing to ignore or buck their demands. But the G-8, while not a formal body, showed over its three days of meetings here that it is evolving to keep up with a changing world – and that this kind of gathering still makes sense.

True, the atmosphere can be clubby: There's a jocular President Bush sparring (in a verbal sense) with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, or amicably squeezing the shoulders of a surprised German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But the summit also provides a small forum for the leaders of the world's top powers to take on the global issues of the day in what can be a more workable environment than that of other institutions.

"We are able to strengthen our personal contacts and relations" in this setting, Mr. Putin said at the summit's close. "People open their hearts to each other ... we understand better the motivations of each other, so the feedback is better."

Sometimes that means action is taken that failed in other diplomatic venues.

For example, the UN Security Council was unable to agree on a resolution on the Middle East crisis last week. But the G-8 leaders on Sunday – by which time the crisis had become even more alarming – worked through their foreign ministers to unite behind a statement with a list of demands to all sides in the conflict.

The statement places the onus for the spiraling violence on Hizbullah and "those that support" it – a veiled reference to Syria and Iran – and calls on it to cease shelling Israel and to release captured Israeli soldiers. At the same time, it calls on Israel to exercise "utmost restraint" to avoid civilian casualties in its military operations against Hizbullah positions.

The statement marks a compromise between the US and its G-8 partners, who entered the summit divided over how much pressure to apply to Israel to restrain its bombings of Lebanon, a base of Hizbullah operations. Bush said Monday he was pleased the leaders had been able to take a common stand against the radical elements threatening the Middle East's progress and stability.

US officials say Bush, who has refrained from assigning any fault to Israel, decided a unified position out of the summit and a recognition of Hizbullah's role were worth some compromise.

That does not mean all differences over the crisis were ironed out. Putin suggested the US had wanted the statement to name Syria and Iran as "terrorist states," an option he said would not have been helpful for either reaching a common stand at the summit or defusing the crisis.

And Blair's call for international boots on the ground in Lebanon to tamp down the violence was not immediately endorsed all around. Bush said he didn't like the "sequence" of talking about a cease-fire before dealing with Hizbullah.

Blair laid out the international-force proposal by saying nothing else would stop the violence. "The only way we're going to get a cessation of hostilities is if we have the deployment of an international force into the area that can stop the bombardment coming over into Israel and therefore gives Israel a reason to stop its attacks on Hizbullah," Blair said.

But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said any cease-fire – a word the US labored to keep out of the leaders' statement – that did not address the role of Hizbullah, as well as Iran and Syria, would collapse. If violence ends "on the basis of Syria and Iran being able to turn on the key again any time," Ms. Rice said, it would be a false peace promising deeper conflict later. Also in a conversation picked up on a live microphone, Bush told Blair he expects Rice to travel to the region "pretty soon."

The G-8 leaders did issue statements on promoting world trade, addressing infectious diseases, and energy security – the Russian host's chosen theme for the summit. Those gave civil society organizations and advocacy groups an opportunity to criticize the wealthy countries' club and to hold the leaders' feet to the global fire.

Greenpeace said the G-8 leaders had failed to craft a "common strategy" for energy security and was divided over nuclear energy.

ActionAid International urged leaders to "close the gap between rhetoric and action" on addressing infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS, and criticized them for "sidelining the world's poorest nations" in trade talks.

WWF (World Wildlife Fund) lamented that leaders had "fallen short" on climate-change action. It asked Germany – host of the next G-8 summit in summer 2007 – to deliver a "serious climate and energy plan."

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