WASHINGTON - While this week's trip by President George W Bush to Israel, Saudi
Arabia and Egypt was never conceived as a triumphant "victory lap" around the
region, the swift rout of United States - and Saudi Arabia-backed forces by
Lebanon's Hezbollah has provided yet another vivid illustration of the rapid
decline in Washington's influence in the Middle East during his tenure.
The events in Lebanon will no doubt cast a long shadow over Bush's tour, which
was due to begin Tuesday. After all, only three years ago he hailed the "Cedar
Revolution" there as vindication of the kind of democratic transformation of
the region that he
insisted the invasion of Iraq was designed to launch.
Three years and a brief war between Israel and Hezbollah later, the Iranian-
and Syrian-backed group appears more powerful and entrenched than ever, just as
its Sunni Islamist ally in the Palestinian Territories, Hamas, remains solidly
in control of Gaza and grows in popularity in the West Bank, in major part due
to the apparent lack of progress in peace talks - formally initiated by Bush at
Annapolis in the US last November - between the Palestinian Authority and the
"The politics on the ground are absolutely miserable," Jon Alterman, a Middle
East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in
Washington told the New York Times on Sunday. "It's hard to remember a less
auspicious time to pursue Arab-Israeli peacemaking than right now. US power and
influence are at low ebb in the region," he added.
Bush will travel to Israel on Tuesday to help it celebrate the 60th anniversary
of its founding and then fly on to Saudi Arabia, presumably to appeal - as he
did in January when he last traveled to the region - for a major increase in
oil production to bring some relief to US (and Republican candidates), and then
to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where he will address the World Economic Forum and
meet with a collection of Sunni Arab leaders, including Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah.
Apart from Israel, to which Bush has been by far the most indulgent president
in the Jewish state's history, he is likely to get his warmest - if most
anxious - reception when he meets with the assembled Sunni leaders, many of
whom are as concerned about Shi'ite Hezbollah's show of force as is Israel.
Like Bush, not to mention Israel, they see Hezbollah's victory as another in a
series of advances by Iran in its effort to shift the balance of power in the
Gulf and the wider region against Washington and its allies there. It is an
impression that Bush, somewhat ironically, will be eager to reinforce, if only
to revive the dying embers of his hopes for a de facto US-Sunni Arab-Israeli
coalition against Tehran, even without a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace
"To me, it's the single biggest threat to peace in the Middle East, the Iranian
regime," he told an interviewer from Israel's TV Channel 10, according to a
partial transcript released on Monday. "Their funding of Hezbollah - look
what's happening in Lebanon now, a young democracy trying to survive ... [I]t's
in Israel interest that the Lebanese democracy survives. You need to be
concerned about Iran, and you are concerned about Iran and so are we."
Indeed, five years after the White House declared "Mission Accomplished" on the
deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, virtually all analysts in Washington agree
that almost everything Bush has done in the region - from invading Iraq and
ousting Saddam Hussein and then rejecting an Iranian offer to negotiate a
settlement on all outstanding issues; to pressing for the total isolation of
Hamas after it won (US-backed) democratic elections in the Palestinian
Territories and egging on the Israelis in their attack on Lebanon and Hezbollah
in 2006 - has undermined US standing and influence, even as it enhanced
Even in Iraq, recent US attacks on Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, particularly
in Baghdad's Sadr City, appear to have bolstered the government factions with
the closest and most-longstanding ties to Iran - the Supreme Islamic Iraqi
Council and its Badr Organization, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Da'wa party.
The fact that Tehran itself played a key role in brokering the truces between
Muqtada and the government in both the southern city of Basra last month and in
Sadr City last weekend underlines the degree to which Iran is effectively
challenging Washington in what neo-conservative hawk Reuel Marc Gerecht of the
American Enterprise Institute admits "is the only arena [in the region] where
the administration is capable of moving effectively against Tehran".
And while there is little evidence that Washington played any role in pushing
the Lebanese cabinet to order the dismantling of Hezbollah's communications
network at Beirut's airport - the act that provoked Friday's offensive - its
staunch support for the March 14 Coalition; its deployment of a US naval
destroyer off Lebanon's coast as the political crisis in Beirut intensified in
March; its supply of some US$400 million in military aid and training to the
Lebanese army and security forces (which stayed out of the fighting); and its
covert backing (with Saudi Arabia and Jordan) of Sunni militias, in some cases
disguised as private security firms, intended to counter Hezbollah no doubt
contributed to a grave miscalculation by the government.
"These Sunni militiamen proved a complete failure, and America's proxies in
Lebanon barely put up a fight despite their strident anti-Shi'ite rhetoric,"
noted Nir Rosen, a regional expert at the New America Foundation who described
Hezbollah's offensive as "the death throes of the Bush plan for the 'New Middle
"Now it is clear that Beirut is firmly in the hands of Hezbollah, and nothing
the Americans can do will dislodge or weaken this popular movement, just as
they cannot weaken the Sadrists in Iraq or Hamas in Gaza," he said.
Still, some observers believe Hezbollah's victory may yet serve the
administration's ends, if only by reminding the Sunni leaders with whom Bush
meets this week that, in Gerecht's words again, "Tehran is on a roll," and they
need the US and even Israel to contain it and roll back its influence.
Indeed, some analysts believe the weekend's events may add to the gradually
growing clamor by hawks in and outside the administration to take military
action - if only, for now, limited strikes on weapons factories and training
sites inside Iran allegedly used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps to
train "terrorists" in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories - to "put
Iran in its place".
"The next couple of days may be critical," said one former senior Central
Intelligence Agency officer with expertise on the region, who added that any
decision to "strike will actually motivated by an irresistible urge, stemming
from pure frustration over continuing American impotence throughout the region,
just to 'do something' ... even though the actual positive gain in this case
would be minimal, while the downside risks are enormous."
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the
neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/