Monday, August 14, 2006

US Mideast clout may be casualty of Lebanon war

By Matt Spetalnick - Reuters Analysis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Bush administration's influence in the Middle East is in danger of becoming another casualty of the war in Lebanon, giving Iran a chance to build up its clout in the region.

Despite a U.S.-backed truce taking effect between Israel and Hizbollah on Monday, Washington faces erosion of credibility in the region and strained ties with Arab moderates that could doom its post-September 11 push to spread democracy there, analysts say.

The Arab world is seething at how President George W. Bush, after promoting free elections in Lebanon, made no effort to stop Israel from weakening the new government by destroying much of the country's infrastructure in a bid to cripple Hizbollah.


But there is also unease among Israelis at a brewing debate in Washington about the Jewish state's value as a strategic ally against Iran, given the failure of its vaunted, U.S.-equipped military to subdue a small, Iranian-backed guerrilla army after a month of fighting.

"Iran comes out of this stronger, with the reflected glory of Hizbollah's performance," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Analysts say Bush's initially halting response to the conflict was of an administration already overstretched by foreign policy problems -- an unpopular war in Iraq and twin nuclear challenges from Iran and North Korea.

"This administration doesn't do diplomacy very well," Kipper said.

U.S. officials also made clear from the start that Bush wanted to give Israel maximum time to inflict damage on Hizbollah, which triggered the war when it abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July

When Israel launched air and ground assaults and Hizbollah responded by raining rockets on northern Israel, Bush was quick to frame the battle in the good-versus-evil terms of the U.S.-led war on terrorism and put the blame on Iran and Syria, the group's supporters.

HIZBOLLAH'S RESILIENCE

U.S. officials had hoped a crushing blow to Hizbollah would send a tough message to Tehran, which denies Israel's right to exist and has defied U.S.-led international efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear program.

But Bush and the Israelis did not count on Hizbollah's resilience. Taking a more realistic view, U.S. officials had to drop demands for a timetable for Hizbollah's full disarmament in a resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council on Friday.


Instead it calls for 15,000 Lebanese troops to be deployed along with an equal number of U.N. peacekeepers to enforce a Hizbollah-free zone in south Lebanon.

U.S. insistence on letting Israeli forces stay in place until peacekeepers arrive has only served to reinforce perceptions in the Arab world of Washington's bias in favor of Israel, which receives $2 billion in annual U.S. military aid.

"Whatever credibility the U.S. had left in the region has been badly degraded," said Mouin Rabbani, an Amman-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice drew Arab outrage last month when she talked about the war as the birth pangs of a new Middle East during a diplomatic trip to the region.

SUSPICION AND DOUBTS LINGER

Reaction to her comments reflected growing doubt over the central thrust of administration policy of pushing democracy in the region, something many still view with suspicion more than three years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Sectarian strife still grips Iraq after its elections, and national ballots pushed by Washington brought the militant Islamic group Hamas to power in the Palestinian territories and entrenched its equally radical Muslim brethren from Hizbollah as a junior partner in the Lebanese government.

The Lebanon war had eclipsed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even if the Israel-Hizbollah ceasefire holds there is little prospect of the Bush administration restarting long-dormant peace efforts it believes will come to little.

Despite that, Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher said U.S. missteps are opening the way for a larger Iranian role in the region, and Washington's ability to respond is limited by its refusal of diplomatic contacts with Tehran.

Iran is thought to view Lebanon as a way to remind Washington of the vulnerability of U.S. interests if the administration seeks U.N. sanctions over its nuclear ambitions.

That has stirred debate among some pundits in Washington expressing disappointment at Israel's failure to deal a stronger blow against Hizbollah and suggesting it had harmed the Jewish state's ability to serve as a strategic deterrent against Iran.

But Israeli Brigadier-General Yossi Kuperwasser defended the army's performance with a list entitled "What Israel has done for the U.S. lately", including what he said was evidence of Syrian and Iranian rocket shipments to Hizbollah.

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