Wolffe: Bush’s Mideast Balancing Act

President Bush thought he’d be flying into St. Petersburg on Friday with one big challenge on his agenda: how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. His prospects for diplomatic success at the weekend G8 summit in the Russian city looked promising. After all, European nations were affronted by Iran’s nonresponse to their package of incentives to stop enriching uranium. The White House had won everyone’s support—including Russia’s—to move ahead to the next step of talking about a United Nations resolution against Iran.

Instead the president is firefighting in another corner of the region: the hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah in Lebanon. On board Air Force One he called three regional leaders—Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora—to maintain a united front against Hizbullah and its backers in Syria and Iran.

White House officials said President Bush was especially pleased by Saudi Arabia’s statement Thursday that condemned Hizbullah’s attacks on Israel as “uncalculated adventures undertaken by elements inside Lebanon and those behind them without recourse to legal authorities and consulting and coordinating with Arab nations.”

Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said the administration had high hopes for the emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo on Saturday, suggesting that the regional leaders would “reflect the same concern about Hizbullah’s acting independently and thereby imperiling the democracy in Lebanon.”

“It is clear that the Arab nations—that Saudi Arabia, that the Jordanians, that the Egyptians—do not look upon Hizbollah as being a legitimate government entity,” Snow added. “As a matter of fact, they look upon it as an active threat to the government of Lebanon.” The White House is trying to hold the line on three fronts: with its Arab allies, with Israel and with Europe. That’s an ambitious goal in a time of hot war between Israel and Hizbullah.

When it comes to Israel, the White House is defending its closest friend in the region—but only up to a point. Bush’s aides insist that Israel has the right to defend itself, even if that means bombing residential areas in Lebanese towns and cities. “The Israelis have decided to try to have targeted attacks against rocket launch sites, many of which are deliberately placed in civilian neighborhoods,” Snow said. “They’ve expressed regret for the loss of innocent life, but they also pointed out that military necessity compels them to hit where the launchers are.”

At the same time, the White House has engaged in extensive conversations with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to encourage them to exercise restraint. Steve Hadley, the president’s national-security adviser, said his calls to Israeli officials were intended “to hear from them their indications that they were focused on Hizbullah, which is the perpetrator of this, not the Lebanese government.”

“We’ve had a number of comments and conversations about the need to try and shore up and not destabilize the Siniora government in Lebanon,” Hadley told reporters on Thursday. “This is a good government that is trying to create a democracy and freedom to Lebanon.”

That view makes it harder for the White House to stand close to some of its European allies. Most problematic is the position of France, which has previously cooperated with the Bush administration on Lebanon—especially in working through the United Nations to eject Syrian forces from Lebanon last year.

Now French President Jacques Chirac is using unusually strong language to suggest that Israel, not Hizbullah, was undermining the new government in Beirut. “One may well ask if there isn't today a kind of wish to destroy Lebanon—its infrastructure, its roads, its communications, its energy, its airport,” Chirac told French television. “I find honestly, as all Europeans do, that the current reactions are totally disproportionate.”

It’s not clear which Europeans Chirac means. After all, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters at a joint press conference with President Bush earlier this week that it was vital to remember what the root cause of the conflict was: Hizbullah. “It’s most important for the Israeli government to be strengthened,” she said, “but it’s also clearly shown that these incursions, such as the kidnapping of soldiers, is not acceptable.” While Merkel said everyone should use “proportionate means” in the conflict, she said the pressure should not be applied to Israel, but on “those who started these attacks in the first place.”

For the moment, the conflict has shifted the focus away from what was once going to be the most contentious part of the G8 summit: concerns about the state of democracy in Russia itself. President Bush started his visit by meeting with a group of “civil society” leaders—activists in groups ranging from environmentalists to health care—to demonstrate his political support for their work. “The president believes it’s important in building a democracy to have vigorous civil institutions that allow the people to express themselves,” said Tony Snow. “Democracy becomes strong when people feel free to express their views.”

The only question now is whether anyone will have the attention span to care about Moscow’s democracy when the G8 begins its meeting on Saturday. Given the existential threat to democracy in Lebanon, Russia’s problems don’t seem nearly as urgent.

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