Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Thursday, July 13th, 2006.

Where’s George?

Bush Administration, Middle East

The President seems to be having an ego implosion. Dan Froomkin writes,

The Middle East is exploding and what is President Bush doing about it? Not much.

Here’s the transcript of this morning’s joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in which Bush sounded more like a bystander on the world stage than the leader of its only superpower.

Other than definitively supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, Bush was more timid and wishful than assertive. He spoke in unusually deferential terms about collaborating with other world leaders and pretty much ruled out military action against Iran. His comments about the current situation in Israel suggested a highly unrealistic notion of how well things were going there up until now, and a naiveté about the effect Israel’s actions may have on Lebanon’s embryonic democratic government.

More than anything else, Froomkin writes, Bush was enthusiastic about tonight’s dinner menu — roast pig.

Get this:

One reporter asked Bush about Russian President Vladimir Putin, who yesterday mocked Vice President Cheney by likening Cheney’s recent criticisms of Russia to his accidental shooting of a hunting buddy in February. Bush’s reaction? He just giggled. “It was pretty clever. Actually, quite humorous — not to dis my friend, the Vice President.”

Jeez, what a weenie.

If you haven’t read this Michael Hirsch commentary (Blurb: “Burned by his bitter Iraq experience, Bush is eschewing leadership and hiding behind the skirts of multilateralism.”) — well, get busy —

… for six years now, George W. Bush’s foreign policy has resembled a pendulum swinging out of control, lurching wildly from hubris to “help us.” Despite the “stay the course” rhetoric, there’s been little that is steady or dependable about it, and not surprisingly it has inspired little respect or trust around the world. In Bush’s first term, the pendulum swung too far toward in-your-face unilateralism. Now, in his second term it has swung dramatically back toward the most squeamish sort of multilateralism—the kind of thinking that says, “Without partners, I don’t dare make a move.” …

… Why is our famously straight-talking president now beating around the bush? One problem, of course, is that the never-abating violence in Iraq is drawing all the strength and energy out of U.S. efforts elsewhere. But the main reason, in my view, is ideological paralysis. The president is still taking the same posture of his first term, that of a strong and dominant leader who does not deign to deal with “illegitimate” regimes such as Iran and North Korea, when he no longer has the power to do so. Unlike dealing with Iraq and Al Qaeda, when he had his options wide open, he really doesn’t want to attack either Iran or North Korea—both options would be very, very messy. And at the same time he no longer has the moral authority of the shock-and-awe era when America looked almighty. Iraq has exposed America’s vulnerabilities, and there’s no point in denying it.

Janine Zacharia reports for Bloomberg:

President George W. Bush and U.S. diplomats, distracted by threats from North Korea to Iraq, are playing a minor role as an escalating confrontation between Israelis and Arabs risks wider Middle East violence.

David Welch, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Elliott Abrams, deputy assistant to the president, only arrived in the region yesterday, 17 days after the abduction of an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip set off the crisis. Bush hasn’t spoken to any Middle Eastern leaders in the past couple of weeks, according to National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones.

Let me repeat that — Bush hasn’t spoken to any Middle Eastern leaders in the past couple of weeks.

What has the U.S. been doing? Well, in the UN Security Council we blocked an Arab-backed resolution condemning Israel. At the Washington Note, Steve Clemons reports,

Although I do not have independent confirmation, I heard the rumor from a well-placed source that Secretary of State Rice attempted to increase pressure on Israel to stand down and to demonstrate “restraint”. The rumor is that she was told flatly by the Prime Minister’s office to “back off”.

Rice is not one to be told to back off without the other party paying a price. Israel’s outrageous, over-the-top military escalations were exactly what the most militarist fanatics of Hamas wanted and exactly what Hezbollah wanted to prompt. Those in the middle of the extremists on all sides are getting crushed.

Rupert Cornwell writes that U.S. policy in the Middle East is in “disarray.” Yet the White House appears unconcerned.

The White House insists that its policies are on track. If there are “a lot of issues in motion,” according to Stephen Hadley, Mr. Bush’s National Security Adviser, “in some sense, it was destined to be. We have a president that wants to take on the big issues and see if he could solve them on his watch.”

More probably an administration whose energies have been consumed by the war in Iraq, on which Mr. Bush has staked his presidency, may be simply overwhelmed. The separate crises amount to “a perfect storm,” Madeleine Albright, who was Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, told The Washington Post last week. “We have not been paying attention to a lot of these issues.”

In the latest flare-up between Israel and its neighbors, Washington has been almost silent. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, who is struggling to orchestrate the response to Iran’s defiance, merely blamed Hizbollah for upsetting “regional stability,” and urged Syria to rein in its radical protégés.

But Washington’s rebukes are far less pointed than a year ago, in the aftermath of the St. Valentine’s Day assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri – when the talk here was of “regime change” in Damascus to follow that in Baghdad.

The change reflects a growing, if tacit, acceptance that the unilateralist “Bush doctrine,” involving pre-emptive action if necessary to remove a threat, is beyond the power of even the US to implement on its own. Hence the President’s more restrained tone of late, encapsulated by Time magazine’s latest cover, proclaiming an end to “Cowboy Diplomacy.” The problems also reflect a failure to think its policies through. The irony is that Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine achieved their roles in government thanks to democratic elections – exactly what Washington has been advocating for the entire Middle East.

Here and there on the Blogosphere there is speculation that the U.S. is somehow orchestrating this crisis with Israel as a prelude to invading Iran. While I’m not going to dismiss this out of hand, I think it’s more likely that the Middle East, including Israel, has finally figured out what a weenie Bush really is. And since we’ve squandered so much of our military strength in Iraq, everyone knows the U.S. doesn’t have the muscle to intervene.

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Bush Administration, Middle East

“All hell broke loose on Wednesday in the Mideast,” Juan Cole says, “with a Hizbullah attack on the Israeli army and Israeli reprisals, and the Israeli dropping of a 500 pound bomb on Gaza.”

In short, among other actions, yesterday Israel bombed the Beirut airport; Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel.

Professor Cole denounces Hezbollah’s attack as “criminal and stupid,” but he also criticizes Israel’s “disproportionate use of force.” In the long run Israel isn’t helping itself by causing chaos in Lebanon. He also writes,

I continue to worry that this outbreak of war in the Levant will exacerbate tensions in Iraq and get more US troops killed. Iraqi Sunnis generally sympathize with the Palestinians. And hard line Shiites like the Sadr Movement and the Mahdi Army are close to Hizbullah. Israel’s wars could tip Iraq over into an unstoppable downward spiral.

Bad news all around.

I scanned news stories yesterday, trying to catch up to the past several days’ events. I don’t pay as much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian situation as I should; after all these years, it’s become background noise to me, I’m sorry to say. For once, the blogosphere wasn’t much help. Commentary from lefties was sparse. Righties, on the other hand, declared war and eagerly cheered the Israeli team. For example, Kim at Wizbang writes,

Israel is proving to its enemies, who probably expected more capitulation, that it is prepared to engage in a two front war. … Now that Israeli government is finally responding to its enemies as it should have a long time ago, Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists would be advised, if they love their families that is, to hold their war planning meetings away from home.

Flopping Aces writes,

Oh, by the way…..where are all the lefty bloggers on this? Has anyone heard a peep out of them? Too busy defending Hezbollah and Hamas I guess.

It’s a legitimate question, even though the conclusion is the usual inflammatory and childish tripe righties are known for. I can’t speak for everyone, but for my part, I don’t want this to be happening. And yesterday I wasn’t sure how big a deal this military action really is — the beginning of a war, or just another episode in the Israel-Palestine epoch?

The more I read, the more disturbing these new developments become. Matt Yglesias quotes Yossi Klein Halevi:

The next Middle East war–Israel against genocidal Islamism–has begun. The first stage of the war started two weeks ago, with the Israeli incursion into Gaza in response to the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and the ongoing shelling of Israeli towns and kibbutzim; now, with Hezbollah’s latest attack, the war has spread to southern Lebanon. Ultimately, though, Israel’s antagonists won’t be Hamas and Hezbollah but their patrons, Iran and Syria. The war will go on for months, perhaps several years. There may be lulls in the fighting, perhaps even temporary agreements and prisoner exchanges. But those periods of calm will be mere respites. …

… According to a very senior military source with whom I’ve spoken, Israel is still hoping that an international effort will stop a nuclear Iran; if that fails, then Israel is hoping for an American attack. But if the Bush administration is too weakened to take on Iran, then, as a last resort, Israel will have to act unilaterally. And, added the source, Israel has the operational capability to do so.

As Matt says,

This is sort of mind-boggling. Let me just go on the record as saying that as bad an idea as bombing Iran may be, doing so as part of a wildly impractical scheme for Israel to launch a general Middle Eastern war is significantly less appealing.

From an editorial in the Boston Globe:

The timing of the Hezbollah action could not be more revealing. Hezbollah commandos crossed into Israel on the same day that Iran was supposed to give its answer to the package of incentives that the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany offered to Iran if it will suspend uranium enrichment and enter negotiations to bring it into compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Because no answer was forthcoming from Tehran, yesterday was also the day that the five permanent Security Council members expressed “profound disappointment” at Iran’s refusal to respond, and said they “have no choice but to return to the United Nations Security Council” to consider possible sanctions against Iran.

Hezbollah’s attack on Israel serves not only to distract from Iran’s defiance of the international community. It also plays into a propaganda campaign that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has conducted in recent months, conflating the issue of Iran’s nuclear program with what he has condemned as the intolerable existence of Israel. Also, by having Hezbollah strike now at Israel, the Iranian regime clearly means to neutralize Arab regimes that are fearful of Iran’s spreading influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had just disclosed publicly that he had worked out a prisoner swap with Israel and Hamas, but that “other parties” he would not name forced Hamas to sabotage the deal. It can be assumed that Syria and Iran are the other parties, the two countries having signed a military cooperation agreement last month that Syria’s defense minister described as establishing “a joint front against Israel.”

Knowing that Iran is behind Hezbollah’s act of war, Israeli leaders — who are openly warning of devastating strikes on Lebanon’s infrastructure — would be well advised to avoid a reflexive military response that lands Israel in an Iranian trap. If the regime in Tehran wants to provoke Israel to bomb Lebanese power plants, roads, and bridges, maybe this kind of military retaliation is not such a good idea.

Maybe not.

Steve Gilliard gets to the heart of the matter (emphasis added):

Why are the Israelis being yanked around by their enemies? A kidnapping has created this insane risk of regional war. Every bomb dropped makes Hamas stronger. Every soldier kidnapped makes Israel react more violently.

Fools mistake weakness for strength and strength for weakness. And, unfortunately, since the United States government is being run by a pack of fools, we are weaker now than we’ve been in many generations. Sidney Blumenthal writes,

On Israel’s reoccupation of Gaza in response to Hamas’ terrorism, Bush has regressed to embracing no policy, just as he did when he first entered office. In the light of Bush’s failure to give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas any tangible gains to show his electorate, Hamas’ victory was foretold. Now the withdrawal of the United States from any peace process is yielding a predictable downward spiral of mutual recrimination in the region.

This might be the time to stop and reflect on how the Bush Administration’s chuckleheaded “foreign policy” may have enabled a Hamas victory in last January’s elections. The Bushies, so enamored of the simple-minded notion that elections equal liberty, can’t see that where people want an Islamic government, elections might not equal liberty. From the February New Yorker:

But look around, Harari said: “In Jordan, too, wherever there are free elections––trade unions, student unions, professional guilds––the Islamists have the upper hand. If the Hashemite kings”––Hussein and Abdullah––“had not played all kinds of tricks, the Islamists would have had a large representation in parliament as well. And when Egypt held its American-inspired parliamentary elections recently, the number of seats won by the Muslim Brotherhood rose fivefold. Throughout the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood is the main power with grassroots support. The Islamists are less corrupt. They are the ones with integrity and compassion. They are of the people and they speak for the people. Today in the Arab world, the choice is clear between democratically elected Islamists and Western-leaning dictators.”

Here in the West we see the Islamists as totalitarians, but if (for whatever reason) it’s the will of the people to be ruled by Islamists, then standing in the way of that, attempting to impose secular government because we think it is better, does not equal freedom. That’s the conundrum righties cannot wrap their heads around.

Likewise, the Bush White House and its rightie admirers enabled Hezbollah to gain power in Syria, according to some observers. Robert Perry wrote last year,

George W. Bush’s grab to take credit for a few democratic openings in the Middle East has endangered the region’s reformers while his two-year-old military adventure in Iraq continues to founder, a disaster sinking in the blood of Iraqi citizens and U.S. soldiers.

That grim assessment is, of course, not the imagery favored by the U.S. news media as it resumes its role of courtier press, lavishing praise on Bush and his neoconservative advisers as heroic visionaries leading the Middle East to freedom. …

… In the latest conventional wisdom about winds of freedom sweeping the Middle East, both mainstream and conservative commentators bought into the notion that Arabs were rallying to Bush’s orations about liberty and finally appreciating his conquest of Iraq. But the reality is that Bush remains one of the region’s most despised figures.

So when Bush rushed to center stage ostensibly to urge on thousands of Lebanese demonstrators demanding Syrian military withdrawal – and implicitly to take credit for the developments – the U.S. news media missed the other story: that Bush’s grandstanding was putting those protesters and their cause in danger.

One of the results was a backlash that saw pro-Syrian Hezbollah stage a counter rally of a half million people in Beirut on March 8, denouncing U.S. intervention in Lebanese politics and accusing Washington of regional “terrorism.” This massive outpouring emboldened Lebanon’s parliament to re-elect pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami, who had resigned just nine days earlier in face of the anti-Syrian protests.

The twin developments were a stunning reversal for U.S. policy in Lebanon, putting the country’s political position back almost where it was when the anti-Syrian protests began following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14. The heightened tensions also have complicated the United Nations’ strategy for pressuring Syria to withdraw its remaining 14,000 troops from Lebanon.

Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim party long denounced by the United States as a terrorist organization, was given a chance to demonstrate that Syria’s military presence, which began in the 1970s during Lebanon’s civil war, has the backing of a significant part of the Lebanese population.

Hezbollah’s muscle-flexing also forced another retreat by Washington. “The United States has basically accepted the French view, echoed by others in Europe, that with Hezbollah emerging as such a force in very fractured Lebanon, it is dangerous to antagonize it right now,” according to a New York Times article by Steven R. Weisman. [NYT, March 10, 2005]

An alert U.S. press corps might have pounced on the Bush administration for overplaying its hand, but virtually across the board the U.S. news media had hailed the pre-March 8 developments as vindication of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the neoconservative strategy of using force to smash the Arab political structure. [See’s “Neocon Amorality” and “Bush’s Neocons Unbridled.”]

Last year righties cheered the Lebanese who protested Syrian occupation, and they adopted the simple-minded but mistaken notion that the Lebanese were inspired by U.S. actions in Iraq to call for freedom. Today, some of the same bloggers who cheered for the people of Lebanon in 2005 (and complained that news media weren’t giving Bush enough credit) today condemn the New York Times for reporting that Israeli bombs killed Lebanese women and children. Sometimes their binary sorting system (good/bad, black/white, us/them) does create some discrepancies.

A statement issued by the White House yesterday condemns Hezbollah, as well as Syria and Iran, for the escalating violence but does not ask Israel to show restraint.

Hizballah’s terrorist operations threaten Lebanon’s security and are an affront to the sovereignty of the Lebanese Government.

Bombing the the Beirut airport is not an affront to the sovereignty of the Lebanese government, however.

Hizballah’s actions are not in the interest of the Lebanese people, whose welfare should not be held hostage to the interests of the Syrian and Iranian regimes.

That sentence is true, of course. It’s absolutely true. I can’t argue with it. However, Israel’s actions could complicate the work of the U.S. military in Iraq and get more U.S. soldiers killed. Yet the White House does not call for Israel to show restraint. I assume they’re treading carefully so as not to disappoint their base. Politics first, you know.

From Left I on the News:

… both the U.S. and the E.U. have condemned Hizballah’s seizure of two Israeli soldiers, with the U.S. escalating its attack on governments it doesn’t like by blaming Iran and Syria, while at the same time no one–no one in the U.S. government, no prominent politician, no U.N. official–as far as I can tell, has said a word about Israel’s murder of nine civilians by intentionally dropping a bomb on their house, nor any other action taken by the Israeli government.


And as a representative example of the liberal response in the United States, the Huffington Post has more than 20 posts/essays on its front page as I write this, covering such important subjects as Bill O’Reilly, Karl Rove, Superman, and other topics (why there’s even one or two about Iraq). Not one even mentions Palestine.

I don’t write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict much for several reasons. One, I have no unique insight into the conflict; there are plenty of other people who do, and I defer to them. Two, what insight I do have tells me everybody involved is wrong a large part of the time. I mean everybody. I don’t take sides; there’s wrong all over. Like most westerners my sympathies want to be with Israel. Like most westerners, I sincerely rejoice that centuries of diaspora ended with the establishment of Israel. But that doesn’t mean the Israeli government is always right (or, conservsely, that the Palestinians are always wrong), or that Israeli actions are always wise and justified. I can’t render the situation into a good guys v. bad guys melodrama, the way righties do.

For years, my basic opinion was that I wished the hostilities would stop, but if not, I hoped the fools didn’t start World War III.

But the righties, and Left I, have a point — we liberals do seem to be avoiding the subject. We shouldn’t be leaving this discussion entirely to the righties.

Via Taylor Marsh — You must read this piece by Michael Hirsch at

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