Bush running out of options

The United States has few options and limited leverage as old animosities in the Middle East overtake hopes for peace and democracy.

One problem is there aren’t many people the U.S. can talk to.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with the armed groups now fighting a two-front battle with Israel, no relations with one of their backers, Iran, and only limited dialogue with the other principal backer, Syria.

Another problem is that the people the United States can talk to aren’t able or willing to do as much as President Bush would like.

The U.S.-allied Palestinian president is weak, the moderately pro-American Lebanese government threatened. Relatively moderate Arab governments have their own reasons to try to stop the violence but do not want to be seen as carrying water for Israel or the United States.

Even U.S. ally Israel, with a new and militarily untested government, may resist U.S. pleas for restraint in its escalating fight with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The United States considers Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist groups.

Israel destroyed the home and office of Hezbollah’s leader Friday and tightened its blockade of Lebanon, blasting its air and road links to the outside world to punish Hezbollah for the capture of two Israeli soldiers.

Lebanese guerrillas fired at least 50 rockets throughout the day, hitting more than a dozen communities across northern Israel.

The death toll in three days of cross-border fighting in Israel and Lebanon continued to rise.

The violence sent shock waves through a region already traumatized by battles in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas.

Renewed fighting in Israel, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip come as the Bush administration was already busy elsewhere in the Middle East _ trying to head off an Iranian nuclear program that the West suspects is aimed at producing a bomb and minding the store amid unrelenting sectarian killings in Iraq.

Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worked the phones Friday, talking to Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese leaders, among others, in hopes of defusing violence that has grown over three days.

The United States is backing an urgent United Nations diplomatic mission to the region, but ruled out a new U.S. special envoy or shuttle diplomacy in the model of past U.S. involvement in Mideast crises.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., suggested Friday that the administration should appoint Colin Powell or James A. Baker III, both former secretaries of state, as a prominent envoy.

“The United States must show leadership and directly engage this crisis,” Hagel said. “The United States is the only country with the ability to lead a coalition to prevent the region from spiraling out of control.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., called the Lebanon fighting a failure of Bush administration Mideast policy.

“We’ve had five and a half years of a failed experiment in tough talk absent diplomacy and engagement,” Clinton told NPR. “I think it’s time to go back to what works, and what has historically worked and what can work again.”

The administration is doing enough, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

“You have the national security apparatus of the United States working on this issue, as well as a variety of other issues with which we are confronted around the world now,” McCormack said.

“One of the things you don’t want to do in a situation like this is you don’t want to have various envoys’ diplomatic efforts stepping on one another,” he said.

Bush’s foreign policy will largely be judged on the outcome of events in the Middle East, including the Iraq war, the possibility for an opening to Iran and progress toward an independent Palestinian state.

A year ago, there were hopeful signs that Israel and the Palestinians could cooperate and eventually restart peace talks. Israel was pulling out of the Gaza Strip, turning occupied territory over to the Palestinians after 38 years of Israeli control.

A popular revolt in Lebanon had forced the exit of Syrian troops after three decades of effective occupation. Iraq was preparing for its first permanent elected government, and there were promising signs of political openness in Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco and other nations.

Most of those opportunities did not live up to their promise, despite Bush’s pledge to support and spread democracy even when it made Arab allies nervous.

Hamas and Hezbollah are throwbacks, trying to sabotage the flowering of democracy, McCormack said.

“They’re trying to fight against that tide of democracy. The United States and its friends and allies are going to stand on the side of freedom, they’re going to stand on the side of democracy and greater progress in that region,” McCormack said. “And, ultimately, those forces will prevail.”


Anne Gearan covers diplomacy and foreign affairs in Washington.

© 2006 The Associated Press