One of the most pressing questions about the current conflict in Lebanon is how far it is a proxy war between the US and Iran, and whether it presages a wider conflict between the two powers.
Some useful reporting on this point has emerged in the past few days. Perhaps the most significant is a piece by Sidney Blumenthal which suggests that the neo-cons are up to their old tricks of manipulating intelligence:
Inside the administration, neoconservatives on Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security staff and Elliott Abrams, the neoconservative senior director for the Near East on the National Security Council, are prime movers behind sharing NSA intelligence with Israel, and they have discussed Syrian and Iranian supply activities as a potential pretext for Israeli bombing of both countries, the source privy to conversations about the program says. (Intelligence, including that gathered by the NSA, has been provided to Israel in the past for various purposes.) The neoconservatives are described as enthusiastic about the possibility of using NSA intelligence as a lever to widen the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and Israel and Hamas into a four-front war. (Salon.com)
According to the New York Times, the neo-cons are battling it with the so-called ‘realists’ of the traditional foreign policy establishment for the ear of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
On her recent trips to the Middle East, Ms. Rice was accompanied by two men with very different outlooks on the conflict: Elliott Abrams, senior director at the
National Security Council, and C. David Welch, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Egypt who is assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
Mr. Welch represents the traditional State Department view that the
United States should serve as a neutral broker in the Middle East. Mr. Abrams, a neoconservative with strong ties to Mr. Cheney, has pushed the administration to throw its support behind Israel. During Ms. Rice’s travels, he kept in direct contact with Mr. Cheney’s office. (NYT)
One reporter who has long covered the struggle between the neo-cons and the realists is Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service. The sources in his latest piece are not optimistic about which side Secretary Rice will come down on.
"She had as much to do with cutting his legs out from under him vis-à-vis the Middle East as anyone else — either through outright agreement with Cheney, or, at the minimum, complicity with his views so as to draw even closer to Bush," according to ret. Col Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s former chief of staff at the State Department.
That experience, of course, confirmed the demise of realist influence in Bush’s first term, at least with respect to the Middle East. (IPS news)
Interestingly, Wilkerson gives a certain amount of credence to the view that the Lebanon war is a precursor to a US attack on Iran.
Thre are differing accounts about whether it is the US or Israel which is more enthusiastic about widening the conflict.
Robert Parry argues that the US wanted Israel to take on Syria:
George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers saw the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah as an opportunity to expand the conflict into Syria and possibly achieve a long-sought “regime change” in Damascus, but Israel’s leadership balked at the scheme, according to Israeli sources. (Consortium News)
Gareth Porter argues that Israel wanted to encourage the US to attack Iran:
One leading expert on Israeli national defense policy issues believes the aim of the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah was to change the Bush administration’s mind about attacking Iran. Edward Luttwak, senior adviser to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Bush administration officials have privately dismissed the option of air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities in the past, citing estimates that a Hezbollah rocket attack in retaliation would kill thousands of people in northern Israel. (IPS News)
However, it may be that the failure of Israel to best Hezbollah on the ground has made both these scenarios less likely, especially given the precarious US position in Iraq and Afghanistan. See for example, the sobering view taken in the latest commentary from Stratfor:
The United States now must make an enormously difficult decision. If it simply withdraws forces from Iraq, it leaves the Arabian Peninsula open to Iran and loses all psychological advantage it gained with the invasion of Iraq. If American forces stay in Iraq, it will be as a purely symbolic gesture, without any hope for imposing a solution. If this were 2004, the United States might have the stomach for a massive infusion of forces — an attempt to force a favorable resolution. But this is 2006, and the moment for that has passed. The United States now has no good choices; its best bet was blown up by Iran. Going to war with Iran is not an option. In Lebanon, we have just seen the value of air campaigns pursued in isolation, and the United States does not have a force capable of occupying and pacifying Iran.
As sometimes happens, obvious conclusions must be drawn. (Stratfor)
Perhaps the today’s UN resolution is a sign that the Bush administration is taking this advice. Then again, the neo-cons proved their ability to take the US to war with disastrous results in Iraq. It would be dangerous to assume they can’t do it a second time.
Update 14 August: Seymour Hersh’s latest article in the New Yorker gives his take on the Lebanon War. A must read.