By Carol Giacomo
Diplomatic Correspondent

President George W. Bush has described the Israel-Hizbollah crisis as another opportunity to remake the Middle East in his democratic vision.

But as civilian casualties from the Israeli-Hizbollah conflict in Lebanon mount, the situation looks increasingly chaotic, and a damage-control operation will make it harder to advance U.S. foreign policy interests, analysts say.

"I think the chances of this having a silver lining are diminishing," said Ellen Laipson, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

"The phrase ‘this is an opportunity’ is such a best-case scenario. Haven’t we learned from the Iraq experience? Be careful of setting out a strategic goal that is so unrealistic," Laipson said.

Bush’s agenda was already loaded — escalating turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea — when rocket attacks by the Lebanon-based Hizbollah guerrilla group three weeks ago provoked Israeli retaliation.

Initially, the world focused on Hizbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, as the aggressor. But Israeli air attacks caused hundreds of civilians deaths and stoked a new backlash against the Jewish state and America, its chief ally.

Israeli forces thrust further into Lebanon on Tuesday, fueling fears of a wider war that could engulf Syria.

Regional outrage over Israeli airstrikes forced Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call off two stops on a Middle East trip.

The conflict did not prevent the U.N. Security Council from adopting a resolution demanding Iran halt a key aspect of its nuclear program.

But it revived tensions between European allies demanding an immediate cease-fire, and the administration, which wants to give Israel more time to degrade Hizbollah’s capabilities.

"This administration has pursued an us-versus-them policy in every strategy and opportunity; in every opportunity, it pursued a strategy which created more of them and less of us," said Ivo Daalder of the center-left Brookings Institution. "You don’t bomb people into liking democracy."

But Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said Hizbollah is a well-organized, well-equipped proxy for Iran, so the conflict with Israel is a front in the U.S. war on terror.

The conflict has refocused attention on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Critics say the fighting might not have ignited if Bush pursued his predecessors’ sustained Mideast engagement.

Five years ago, Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California proposed legislation calling for deployment of Lebanon’s army along borders with Israel and Syria, but he said former Secretary of State Colin Powell "fought it tooth and nail."

If Bush had backed the initiative, Lebanon could have removed Hizbollah when the guerrilla group was "a tiny fraction of its current strength, and you would not have seen this warfare we’ve seen for two weeks now," Lantos said.

The war is also raising questions about the limits of U.S. support for Israel.

"The United States will remain committed to defending Israel. … But, it need not, and cannot, be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships," Sen. Chuck Hagel said this week.

The Nebraska Republican also warned that extended military action alone would not destroy Hizbollah, but would "tear apart Lebanon … and deepen hatred of Israel" in the Middle East.

© Reuters 2006