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     News: Bush Is Dealing From Position of Weakness

    Latest NewsBush Is Dealing From Position of Weakness
    Los Angeles Times, CA
    By Tyler Marshall and Alissa J. Rubin, Times Staff Writers

    Nazzi Ali Mutkak, who locals say ran a coffee stand, was killed in a direct hit on one of the main streets of Tyre, Lebanon. Civil defense arrived to take him to the hospital, but he died on the way. Two small coffee cups fell by his side. Israelis killed at least three people in Tyre on Sunday, in several direct attacks.
    (Carolyn Cole / LAT)

    WASHINGTON -- As the Bush administration seeks to negotiate a diplomatic end to the fighting in the Middle East, it finds it has a strikingly weak hand.

    The war in Iraq, the halting U.S. efforts to respond to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and now the fighting in Lebanon and Israel have led to unprecedented levels of anti-Americanism in the Arab world. Alliances with longtime Arab friends are strained, and the U.S. lacks relations with two key regional players: Iran and Syria.

    "The Lebanon crisis is the end of the myth that we can tell the world what to do and they'll line up to do it," said Nancy Soderberg, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration. "They are going to have to do real diplomacy."

    Adding to the challenge is, remarkably, inexperience. Despite 5 1/2 years in office, Bush's foreign policy team has been involved in surprisingly few high-stakes negotiations in the region.

    The draft U.N. resolution painstakingly crafted by the United States and the French over the weekend was a first effort at negotiating an end to the fighting in Lebanon. But it took a long week for agreement to be reached, despite U.S. officials' constant assertion that it was just a matter of details. In that week, many Lebanese civilians died, leading many in the region to believe that the U.S. cared little about their lives.

    The landscape looks grim for serious diplomacy.

    Since U.S. forces captured Baghdad without a serious fight in the spring of 2003, fear of American military might has melted away as the soldiers and Marines were unable to control the insurgency or stem Iraq's escalating sectarian violence. The result has reduced America's aura of complete power and, with it, the ability to bend others to its will.

    Successful diplomacy requires being able to broker between enemies by having the trust of both parties and enough force, moral and military, to enforce a deal. America's recent foreign forays have relied largely on force, and those victories have been short-lived and been unable to bring about the democracy they promised.

    "In the Middle East, historically people always go with the strong horse, but we don't look like the strong horse anymore," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "To Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, we look like we're short of breath."

    Added Rand Corp. counterterrorism specialist Bruce Hoffman: "If they felt threatened then, they are emboldened now."

    The Bush administration also faces an unprecedented level of anti-American feeling in the Arab world, emotions driven in part by its image as an unquestioning supporter of Israel and also by allegations of torture and abuse against Muslim detainees in places such as Guantanamo Bay and Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

    One survey conducted eight months ago by the polling group Zogby International in Egypt -- an American ally -- found that just more than 3 percent of those questioned had a "very favorable" opinion of the United States, while 71 percent had a "very unfavorable" view.

    The result is a serious erosion of political goodwill and moral authority, both important components of diplomatic influence historically available to the United States.

    Against this unsettling backdrop, a U.S. diplomatic offensive involving substantive negotiations to alter the map of the broader Middle East would be a first for Bush. While few American presidents have initiated greater change to the political landscape of the Middle East than has Bush, little of it has come through consensus-building or negotiated agreement.

    Political transformation in Afghanistan and Iraq followed military invasions, the end of Syria's occupation of Lebanon came mainly through intense international pressure triggered by the assassination of the former prime minister, and gradual expansions of political pluralism in countries such as Egypt came from high-profile rhetoric and a firm political nudge.

    "This administration doesn't do diplomacy well," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They are like the Arabs: They say something and think it's been done."

    In addressing the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the White House has not turned to a special U.S. special envoy or bouts of intense shuttle diplomacy like that employed by previous administrations to achieve breakthroughs. Instead, Bush chose to swing behind former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral approach to carve a separate, independent Palestinian state out of the West Bank and Gaza, on Israeli terms.

    The White House sees the struggle in the region fundamentally as one between the forces of good and evil -- terrorism and freedom. That, coupled with Bush's own sense of mission to defend Israel and spread democracy to the region, leaves little room for the kind of compromise required for effective diplomacy, experts say.

    "The U.S. has to begin to start thinking of gray resolutions that would end the current conflict and keep that border quiet for years," said Paul Salem, director designate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon.

    Those who have been involved in the administration's decision-making process say there is little airing of contrary views.

    Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's chief of staff and has charged that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dominate national security issues, said neither displayed an inclination for the tiresome work of diplomatic consensus-building.

    "Powell tried on a number of occasions to rub him (the president) the other way, but if you have the president leaning one way and the vice president leaning the same way, there's not a lot you can do," Wilkerson said.

    A sense that Bush's strong backing of Israel has cost the United States its image as an honest broker between Arabs and Israelis has led some of the ...

    State Department's most experienced Arab world experts to leave government. Others, viewed as overly sympathetic to Arab arguments, have been transferred to other responsibilities.

    "Those are the people who would be mounting limited dissent, dissent that would be in Condi's face, telling her what the (political) costs of this kind of policy is in the Arab world," Wilkerson said, referring to Powell's successor, Condoleezza Rice. "Those voices aren't there."

    (Optional add end)

    Whatever foreign policy team the U.S. fields, exerting its influence won't be easy.

    At first, Iran and Syria were visibly shaken by America's invasion of Iraq and worried they might be next on the administration's agenda. They no longer see such a danger. Similarly, in the wake of the invasion, Islamic militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas reduced militant activities and talked of joining a political process, but now have resumed the fight.

    The perception of American indifference to Arab suffering has only hardened during the current conflict as the administration consistently rejects calls for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire, insisting instead that any such move include the outlines of a lasting political settlement.

    Although Rice and others have defended the move as necessary to break the cycle of violence that has gripped the region for decades, it has been widely viewed in the Arab world -- and elsewhere -- as a cynical delaying tactic to allow Israeli forces to degrade Hezbollah's fighting capabilities.

    The backlash has been so intense that Rice's abrupt departure from the region last week after an Israeli airstrike killed at least 28 Lebanese civilians was caused in part because she had few other places where she could go. Even three normally pro-American Arab governments -- Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon -- signaled that public emotions were running too high for Rice to come. (A State Department official, who declined to be identified by name, said Rice had not considered a stop in Amman, the Jordanian capital.)

    "The people back home and in all Arab countries are really outraged about the course of events," said Egypt's U.N. ambassador, Maged Abdelaziz. "It is as if the Lebanese people should die to protect Israel."

    Marshall reported from Washington and Rubin from New York. Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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