America's Proxy War.

by Lawrence F. Kaplan | July 31, 2006

"When the elephants fight, the grass suffers." Or so went a variation of the Third World lament during the cold war. The lament clearly applies today in Lebanon. But it also applies in Washington, where the administration views the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah as a classic case of great-power brinkmanship--in this case, pitting the United States against Iran. The paradigm that the Bush team has drawn on in its response to the Lebanon crisis isn't the war on terrorism. It's the proxy battles of the cold war.

Proxy wars have rules, too--the first being that they should never reach the point of drawing their great-power backers into a wider one. To prevent this from happening during the proxy conflicts of the cold war--whether in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, or the Middle East--the Americans and the Soviets always established red lines beyond which their clients were not to venture. Hence, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger prevailed upon Israel to stop short of destroying Egypt's Third Army during the Yom Kippur War, thereby averting a direct conflict with the Soviet Union. Even in a war with much lower stakes, Washington repeatedly checked Israel's freedom to maneuver during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But, apparently, not this time. Pressed about the conflict, White House spokesman Tony Snow declared, "The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel."

Perhaps not exactly. But red lines have been drawn, whether the White House chooses to acknowledge them or not. With its own timetable for contesting Iran's nuclear ambitions--not to mention 130,000 U.S. troops fighting next door in Iraq--the administration has no appetite for a wider war. "If this escalates into open conflict between Iran and Israel," says Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, "America's goals in Iraq and its nuclear diplomacy at the U.N. will both go up in flames." If administration officials haven't needed to sketch out a series of explicit red lines for the Jewish state, it's largely because Israel has done it for them: Israeli officials have offered assurances to their American counterparts that, absent direct provocation, they have no intention of striking either Iran or Syria.

Within Lebanon, meanwhile, the Bush team has drawn one red line--namely, the preservation of the Lebanese government. On the ground in Israel, Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State David Welch have pressed Israel, with mixed results, to spare the country's infrastructure. For his part, President Bush has made a point of emphasizing "the fragile democracy in Lebanon," while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists it is "extremely important that Israel exercise her restraint in its activities of self-defense." That insistence derives from something more than solidarity with the government in Beirut or even a humanitarian impulse. The administration has given Israel the green light to "hit Hezbollah hard," in the words of a senior Israeli official. But, with one eye to the aftermath, the Bush team fears civilian casualties will amplify the chorus of international criticism, forcing a premature halt to the campaign and poisoning a post- conflict settlement. "Israel knows it can't dismantle Hezbollah from the air, and it knows the [Lebanese] government can't rein [Hezbollah] in," says a Pentagon official. "Everything you're seeing is about leverage for the end game. " That end game, both the United States and Israel hope, will include European-- and particularly French-- political support for an effort to neutralize Hezbollah.

Overall, however, the Bush team has spent many more hours encouraging Israel than constraining it. The administration, after all, has no more use for Hezbollah than Israel does. And, while the organization may not pose the existential threat to the United States that it does to Israel, the administration views it as a crucial proxy for Iran. Critics delight in faulting the Bush administration for viewing the international scene through a "state-centric" lens. But, when it comes to Hezbollah--which boasts verifiable return addresses in Tehran and Damascus--what other lens is there? The terrorist group, a State Department official says, counts as one of many clients that Iran has used to extend its "hegemony" through the Middle East. "There's a lot of people who believe that the Iranians are trying to exert more and more influence over the entire region, and the use of Hezbollah is to create more chaos to advance their strategy," President Bush told Newsweek's Richard Wolffe last week, adding that this was "a theory that's got some legs to it as far as I'm concerned." In this telling, Hezbollah's provocation actually amounts to an opportunity to roll back Iranian influence. In fending off calls for a cease-fire, then, administration officials see themselves furthering not only Israel's interests, but also America's. Were the status quo left in place, explains one member of the Bush team, it would amount to a tremendous victory for Tehran. Conversely, any settlement that confirms a crushing defeat of Hezbollah would cut short Iran's reach and humiliate it for the entire region to see.

Even more so, because administration officials believe that Hezbollah's provocation relates, more than anything else, to the coming confrontation at the United Nations over Iran's nuclear program. Citing a catalogue of past examples in which Iran "turned on and turned off" Hezbollah activity at the Israeli border, a Pentagon official says, "This is [Iran's] way of saying, `Make life hard for us, and we'll make it hard for you.'" Specifically, the White House sees the crisis as Iran's attempt to conflate its nuclear program with the Arab-Israeli conflict. In this, the Iranians already may have been dealt a setback, as most Arab governments have either remained silent or, as in the case of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, condemned Hezbollah outright. (As one Lebanon-watcher notes, Hezbollah's actions have left a good chunk of the Saudi royal family stranded at Lebanese resorts.)

PROXY WARS ARE complicated undertakings, however. As tended to be the pattern during the cold war, while senior administration officials see the meddling hand of a larger power, the foreign policy bureaucracy over which they preside sees a local conflict--the product of indigenous forces, with nearby consequences. In particular, area specialists at the State Department and the Pentagon fear the consequences in Lebanon and Iraq.

Having encouraged and taken pride in Lebanon's Cedar Revolution--in which a combination of popular outrage and Western pressure forced Syrian troops from Lebanon last year--State Department officials, particularly those in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, lament the country's unraveling. Last year, Lebanese American University Professor Habib Malik told me, "The overwhelming majority in Lebanon realize that what's happening is the result of U.S. benevolence-- Bush is even being called `St. George.'" According to the White House's logic, U.S. support for the Israeli bombing campaign won't necessarily deplete this goodwill. But the government's Middle East specialists argue that the air campaign may be erasing last year's gains in one fell swoop. "In Lebanon, you may already be seeing diminishing returns," says David Schenker, until recently a Lebanon analyst at the Defense Department and now a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The longer this goes on, the greater the danger that Lebanese anger could move away from Hezbollah and toward Israel, and there is a risk that the United States could be held responsible."

Nor is this the greatest risk the United States faces. While the State Department bureaucracy fears for Lebanon's future, senior officers at the Pentagon fear the effect on America's own war a few hundred miles to the east. Taken aback at the scope of the air campaign, a Pentagon planner explains the concern of his colleagues this way: "Iran has three strategic assets: Hezbollah, missiles, and its people in Iraq. If Hezbollah's existence is genuinely threatened, there's no question Iran will ratchet up the pressure and the Badr Brigades and [Moqtada Al] Sadr will start to attack us [in Iraq]." Thus far, Sadr has contented himself with menacing rhetoric, warning: "[W]e in Iraq will not sit by with folded hands before the creep of Zionism." But senior American officers fear worse to come if the bombing campaign extends into next week. And none of this compares with the steep price they say could be exacted upon U.S. forces in the event of a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran or Syria.

Such a conflict seems unlikely. But what of Lebanon? Asked whether the country deserves its fate, an administration official shrugs: "Yeah, pity Lebanon."

By Lawrence F. Kaplan

This article originally ran in the July 31, 2006, issue of the magazine. 

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