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Middle East: U.S. Leverage At Low Point

Israeli soldiers on the border with Lebanon (epa) WASHINGTON, July 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The UN has sent an envoy to Beirut to try to bring a diplomatic end to the violence in Lebanon. So too has the EU, and France is sending both its prime minister and foreign minister. The United States, by contrast, has yet to send a top-level team to the region. RFE/RL correspondent Julie A. Corwin asked Arthur Hughes, former director-general of the Israel-Egypt multinational force and now a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, to explain the United States' strategy in this crisis.

RFE/RL: Why hasn't the United States sent a top-level team to the Middle East?

Arthur Hughes: Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice has commented that she might be heading out there soon, and apparently President [George W.] Bush has made similar comments. I think first they want to make sure that when she actually does go out there, there are very good chances of success, because it would serve nobody's interest for the secretary of state of the United States to go out to the region and then leave empty-handed.

RFE/RL: What can the United States do in the meantime?

"The United States' leverage and prestige in the region is probably at a low point, because of... moving the focus too early from Afghanistan to Iraq."

Hughes: The Iranian foreign minister has gone to Damascus, and it's quite possible that after the Arab League foreign ministers' meeting [on July 15], they're actually engaged in conversations. And I'm sure that folks in the [U.S.] National Security Council staff and the State Department are...touching base with all friendly contacts, those who are interested to see what might be done [and] what the most promising avenues of approach are.

RFE/RL: What leverage does the United States have in this situation?

Hughes: Not a great deal, frankly. Very regrettably, the United States' leverage and prestige in the region is probably at a low point, because of... moving the focus too early from Afghanistan to Iraq. There was no serious plan for Phase 4, that is, the postcombat phase of Iraq. And, of course, the ongoing struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the perception that the administration doesn't have its eye on that ball, is also one of the causes of the broader stress and conflict in the Middle East.

Israeli soldiers fire shells at targets in Lebanon (epa)

RFE/RL: How has the situation in Iraq affected the United States' leverage?

Hughes: Our failures in Iraq have made us, as Americans, the United States, [appear] feckless and unclear about what the way of the future ought to be. And some would even argue [we've failed] to meet our broader responsibilities, because it is absolutely clear that...since basically the beginning of Israel and particularly starting after the 1967 war, it's been a broadly accepted point of American policy and public attitudes and private attitudes to support Israel and support Israel's existence and well-being. That has given Israel a sense of confidence that it might not have had otherwise. And with that support comes a certain amount of responsibility, I think. I think President Bush was absolutely right to call for a two-state solution, but I'm afraid we're further away now from that than we might have been.

RFE/RL: Do you agree with the analysis that this Middle East crisis is fundamentally different from all the others because now Israel's main rivals are Hizballah and Hamas rather than the PLO, Egypt, or Iraq? And, if so, how should this change the United States' response?

Hughes: It was also Hizballah who inflicted serious pain on the United States in the context of Lebanon and [in the attack on a U.S.] Marine barracks [in Beirut in 1983, in which 241 Americans and 67 French paratroopers were killed]. But one thing that is very clear is that one of the results of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and getting rid of the Saddam Hussein regime is that now Iran is the main victor, because Iran is a former enemy of Saddam Hussein and also of the Taliban. They are no longer there to act as regional brakes on Iran. And the fact that Iran feels that it has much more space in which to operate is also evidenced by its actions in Iraq itself. But Iran feeling liberated, that is the main new dimension, from my point of view. They are the main sponsors and financiers of Hizballah and weapons suppliers.

RFE/RL: So you believe that Iran was behind the latest Hizballah offensive?

Hughes: I think what is clear is that Hizballah certainly felt empowered by Iran's own actions and in Iraq, and the Iranian presence with Hizballah in southern Lebanon. You know, one could hypothesize that Hizballah leaders were talking with their Iranian mentors and supporters in southern Lebanon itself. There are so many of them there. There are several hundred reportedly. They must have had some notice of what was going on, but if it didn't, Hizballah certainly felt empowered by Iran's own activities to make these kinds of cross-border operations.