Worthy-sounding meetings of ministers, like the International Conference for Lebanon held in Rome today, rarely get very much done. The participants here were high-powered, to be sure: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the prime minister of the country in question, Fouad Siniora, plus a slew of Europeans and Arabs (but no Israelis or Hizbullahis). Instigated by Washington, it was all for show.
The assembled dignitaries expressed their "determination to work immediately to reach with the utmost urgency a ceasefire" in the war that started two weeks ago today when the Hizbullah militia crossed the border to capture two Israeli soldiers, and Israel responded with a massive counterattack the length and breadth of Lebanon. But, at American insistence, the ceasefire would have to be one that's "lasting, permanent and sustainable." Which means the flames searing Lebanon, threatening Israel and endangering the most volatile region in the world will go on for weeks, if not months, to come. The consolation prize: a promise of "immediate humanitarian aid."
Imagine, if you will, that arsonists have set your apartment block on fire. You call 911 and plead for help. The dispatcher tells you of her "determination to work immediately with the utmost urgency" to douse the flames, but only if plans can be agreed on for the new building to be erected when the decrepit old one has gone up in smoke. She's stalling, hoping the arsonists will be eliminated by the conflagration. And she's got a great vision for the way that block should look some day. That's what counts. Not your furniture, or for that matter, your family inside … No wonder Siniora looked distraught as the conference closed.
But as irrational as the politicians who make policy may be, the professionals in their entourages often understand reality quite well. And in the corridors of today's conference I met several men and women who, on background or off the record (meaning they were afraid of losing their jobs if caught talking too frankly) laid out a picture of the situation in the Middle East right now that was convincing, frightening, and seems to have escaped the notice of Dispatcher Rice altogether.
The bottom line: Hizbullah is winning. That's the hideous truth about the direction this war is taking, not in spite of the way the Israelis have waged their counterattack, but precisely because of it. As my source Mr. Frankly put it, "Hizbullah is eating their lunch."
We're talking about a militia—a small guerrilla army of a few thousand fighters, in fact—that plays all the dirty games that guerrillas always play. It blends in with the local population. It draws fire against innocents. But it's also fighting like hell against an Israeli military machine that is supposed to be world class. And despite the onslaught of the much-vaunted Tsahal, Hizbullah continues to pepper Israel itself with hundreds of rockets a day.
The United States, following Israel's lead, does not want an immediate ceasefire precisely because that would hand Hizbullah a classic guerrilla-style victory: it started this fight against a much greater military force—and it's still standing. In the context of a region where vast Arab armies have been defeated in days, for a militia to hold out one week, two weeks and more, is seen as heroic. Hizbullah is the aggressor, the underdog and the noble survivor, all at once. "It's that deadly combination of the expectation game, which Hizbullah have won, and the victim game, which they've also won," as my straight-talking friend put it.
Neither U.S. nor Israeli policymakers have taken this dynamic into account. If they had, they'd understand that with each passing day, no matter how many casualties it takes, Hizbullah's political power grows. Several of my worldly Lebanese and Arab friends here in Rome today—people who loathe Hizbullah—understand this problem well. Privately they say that's one of the main reasons they are so horrified at the direction this war has taken: they fear not only that Lebanon will be destroyed, but that Hizbullah will wind up planting its banner atop the mountain of rubble.
When I heard Condi talking in pitiless academic pieties today about "strong and robust" mandates and "dedicated and urgent action," I actually felt sorry for her, for our government, and for Israel. As in Iraq three years ago, the administration has been blinded to the political realities by shock-and-awe military firepower. Clinging to its faith in precision-guided munitions and cluster bombs, it has decided to let Lebanon bleed, as if that's the way to build the future for peace and democracy.