As the pummeling of southern Lebanon by Israeli military might continues, the diplomatic picture simultaneously unfolds. Diplomatic efforts have taken some time to get off the ground, particularly in the case of the United States. While I previously posed this issue as a Catch-22 of sorts for the US, in light of the evolution of the situation I am inclined to become a bit more optimistic.
For the past week or so the Administration has voiced support for Israel and called on Syria to reign in Hezbollah, however, its response to the conflict really amounted to little more than a wait-and-see approach. Diplomatically, this seems to have been the wise choice. Israel has made very clear from the beginning that it will settle only for the removal of Hezbollah from threatening proximity to Israeli borders and that a prisoner exchange was unacceptable; so for the US to implore Israel to end hostilities would serve only to create a case of dissonance between the two.
This ultimately translates to the necessity that Hezbollah be the one to give in. As the bigger picture begins to unfold, this seems increasingly reasonable. Hezbollah has been a highly destructive force in Lebanon, which mere weeks ago was a promising island of relative stability in the region. Unfortunately there existed a small problem in the shape of a terrorist organization that controlled the southern third of the country, an organization that exists independently on the Lebanese government. Its very existence marginalizes the legitimacy of the Lebanese government, which is not powerful enough to subdue it. In an interview with Al-Jazeera Saturday, Lebanese social affairs minister Nayla Moawad admitted that Lebanon “never pretended that we could disarm Hezbollah.” She went on to emphasize the divergence of the Lebanese government’s interests and policy from that of Hezbollah, saying “we clearly stated that we did not approve of the operation and we did not know about the operation and we did not adopt or support this operation.”
The landscape would be dramatically different if Hezbollah acted only on behalf of a group of Lebanese dissidents. Reality is that Hezbollah operates in Lebanon not as an advocate of the Lebanese but as an enemy of Israel under the auspices of Iran and Syria. The disconnect between the interests of Lebanon and those of Hezbollah were made very apparent by Hassan Nasrallah himself, the leader of the terrorist organization, when he said that they are fighting not only for Lebanon but for the entire Arab people. He went further saying that “war will continue whether the Lebanese people like it or not” according to the report by Al-Jazeera.
It is increasingly clear, then, that Hezbollah is the problem. They have prevented Lebanon from building upon the pullout by Syria and relatively successful democratic elections. And it is their singular and self-professed goal of destroying Israel that has brought destruction upon Lebanon. The problem goes still deeper though. Hezbollah exists only thanks to Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made no secret of his agenda to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, so it comes as no surprise the stance of its proxy Hezbollah.
If we look at this in the wider context of the Middle East, we see how very pertinent the outcome of the current conflict in southern Lebanon is to the entire region. If Iran is to destroy Israel, it certainly has no interest in allowing the US to create a stable sphere of influence centered in Iraq. No one will deny that the US has many interests in the region, not the least of which is oil. Looking into a future where an nuclear-armed Iran dominates a Middle East composed of nations ruled by extremist clerics there is inevitable conflict in the form of threats to Israel and access to oil.
So in sum, Iran’s regional ambitions are at the heart of the problem. It will continue to be a source of headaches in the region until confronted. If it is not confronted, a long parade of violent episodes much like the one we currently face is the likely result. That is the reality we face. In the short term, we must seek the quickest path to a cessation of hostilities and a swift relief effort for the hundreds of thousands of displaced Lebanese. But we must approach this with the knowledge that unsustainable half-measures are just that—compromises that only set the stage for another round of violence later down the road.