By DAN K. THOMASSON
With allies like this, who need enemies?
If the Israelis had deliberately set out to undermine about the only friend they have left in the world, they couldn’t have done a better job. Their tragic bombing of women and children in Lebanon had nearly the same impact on a White House hoping to turn voter attention away from its failures in Iraq and the nation’s growing loss of international respect.
With the crucial midterm elections only three months away, President Bush is running out of time to up his low overall approval ratings to a level most analysts believe he will need to prevent at least some loss of control in Congress. Those ratings have been stuck in the miserable 30s for months. If the Democrats should capture one house or both, the president’s policies would be in serious jeopardy. While that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago despite the continued losses in Iraq with little relief in sight, the events in Lebanon have increased the possibilities for the opposition party.
Adding to voter dismay is the seeming inability of the administration _ or the European community, for that matter _ to deal with the real culprit in the piece, the Iranians. Without Iran’s undisguised backing, the militant Hezbollah would not have the wherewithal to accomplish its anti-Israeli mission. It is quite clear now that the Iranians are seeking to improve their influence in an area that many now increasingly believe is the incubator for World War III.
Concern about the potential for worldwide conflagration is evident in recent voter polls and is helping to widen the split among Republicans over the president’s policies. My daughter-in-law expressed it to me only moments after learning of the latest tragedy. "I don’t want my boys to face this," she said near tears, a reaction not lessened by the fact that the children are more than a decade away from an age when they would be called to military service.
The origin of the Iranian problem can be traced to the misguided policies of Jimmy Carter, who withdrew U.S. support from the shah of Iran and helped install the fanatical Muslim regime that followed. His failure to quickly resolve the ensuing embassy hostage crisis cost the nation a devastating loss of respect and influence worldwide and encouraged continued attacks on American interests. Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists conducted a series of kidnappings of Americans in Lebanon that put pressure on President Reagan and resulted in the Iran-Contra scandal that threatened his administration.
There seems to be no easy solution, certainly not without an agreement in the world community, that it is in everyone’s interest to convince Iran of the pain that comes with being an outlaw nation. Whether this can be accomplished in the United Nations or wherever is anyone’s guess. Ironically, the bombing of children may have horrified even the most calloused to reassess their positions. On the other hand, those Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia who originally condemned Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel can be expected to now accuse the Israelis of overreaction.
So where does the Bush administration now stand? Does it maintain its stance not to condemn Israeli military response to the rocket attacks and kidnappings while trying to negotiate a ceasefire? Clearly, a shaken Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is between a rock and a sand dune, cutting her peace mission short and returning home. The next step may be for all-out support for proposals to put a U.N. force in southern Lebanon to prevent the attacks. It should be obvious to everyone, including the Israelis, that efforts to knock out the rocket sites aren’t effective and that ground forces are the only way.
For Israel to send an invasion force into Lebanon would heighten the potential for a regional conflict that could spread into what everyone hopes to avoid — the third world conflict in less than 100 years. Few presidents have confronted the kind of peril that Bush now faces. The divisions in this country over Iraq and now the Israeli situation are approaching those that so divided the nation during Vietnam.
It may be difficult to ask the Israelis to stand down under the circumstances, but the possibility of further killing of innocent children should force them to do so. Americans expect more of their allies.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)