U.S. Sticks with Independent Lebanon Strategy

Showing support for Israel, the United States has refused calls to support an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon. Robert Malley, of the International Crisis Group, talks with Renee Montagne about the Bush administration's strategy.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This week, we're examining some of the broader questions raised by the fighting in Lebanon. Today, we'll look at diplomacy and the decision by the United States to resist calls for a cease-fire so that Israel might achieve its and America's objectives before the fighting stops.

Here's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (United States Secretary of State): What we're seeing here, in a sense, is the birth pangs of a new Middle East. And whatever we do, we have to be certain that we're pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one.

MONTAGNE: We're joined by Robert Malley. He is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group. From 1998 to 2001, he was President Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs. Welcome.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group): Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Now, the secretary talked about birth pangs. Some of them include a newly empowered Iran, an unstable Iraq, and this conflict in Lebanon. What is the route from this present to the future that the Bush administration envisions?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, if there is a route, it is a very hard one to see. I mean, what's striking in all of this is how much these birth pangs are taking place amidst violence. And violence is the terrain that militants - whether it's Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida, or others - like best.

MONTAGNE: One of the arguments that Israel has put forth is that the situation on the ground was unacceptable. You know, over time, Hezbollah was threatening to them. Is there a case to be made? Then there would be no stopping Hezbollah.

Mr. MALLEY: Of course, there's a case to be made. You know, I would argue that one should distinguish between two things. An immediate cessation of hostilities is imperative for so many reasons, of course, because of the loss civilian life on both sides; but also, because of what it's doing to the birth pangs of the new Middle East. How can this moderate Lebanese government pick up the pieces when its nation is going to be torn to shreds? How does that project democratization in the region? Again, what Secretary Rice is talking about going to be able to survive images - daily images of what's happening in Lebanon might...

MONTAGNE: Although, wouldn't Secretary Rice and the administration argue that the Lebanese government would then be made stronger by the fact that it wasn't under in the shadow of Hezbollah?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, we should have a cease-fire now. And we should immediately thereafter vigorously try to deal with those root causes that Secretary Rice spoke about, but let's not define them half way. One of the root causes is the fact that you have an armed, autonomous militia operating in Lebanon. And that's unacceptable to the Lebanese and to the Israelis, and it has to be dealt with.

But you can't simply pluck out one root cause and say that's the cause of all the evil. It's related to the fact that there still are unresolved issues between Lebanon and Israel, territorial issues, issues of prisoners. And, of course, it's related to the broader picture in the Middle East because Hezbollah is not simply a Lebanese instrument. It's also an actor that fits into Syrian and Iranian objectives. And it's also an expression of the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict.

It was interesting to hear Secretary Rice say that if you give the Lebanese and Israeli people an immediate cease-fire, you're offering them a false promise. But then, in response, she offers them a false choice. It's either you get a cease-fire now and we're not going to deal with the underlying problems. Or, we're going to deal with the underlying problems, but you're going to have to wait for the cease-fire. There's no reason why you can't do both.

The irony is, you know, it used to be said that there's no military solution to political problems. And now the logic seems to be that there's no political solution without a military road, and that's quite a reversal.

MONTAGNE: How does one measure winning and losing in this fight in Lebanon? How does one determine when the strikes against Hezbollah, for instance, have accomplished their objective?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, it beats me. I mean, I think this is - history shows that in these conflicts you can try to use metrics on a day-to-day basis: How many Hezbollah militants have been killed, or how many rockets - rocket launchers have been destroyed? That's always an imprecise science because who knows who's a militant and who isn't? Who knows how many rockets they have to begin with?

But it's in the long-term that you really have to count the cost and the benefit. And from talking to Hezbollah militants and officials, our sense is they believe they're winning, they believe time is on their side. They think the more this becomes a military conflict between Israel and Lebanon, the more politics get ignored and the more it is about violence and strife and militancy, the more they're in an environment in which they're at ease.

MONTAGNE: Well, turn that around, though. How do they measure how many more people are turning against Israel or the United States because of the attacks on them?

Mr. MALLEY: I think the way they are measuring it, and again, just listen to what they say. Are they still surviving? Are they still standing? Are they able to drag Israel into the kind of conflict in which politically they think they would gain because they're alienating more and more of the Lebanese people? And do they maintain their political and military capacity at the end of the day? That's at least, again, what they are looking at. And they're saying as long as we're not defeated, we won. I mean, it's the classic line from guerilla movements: the state has to win. The only thing the guerrilla movement - in this case, whatever we want to call Hezbollah - the only thing it has to do is not lose. And that's how they're looking at it. If they're still standing when the guns fall silent, they believe they've prevailed.

MONTAGNE: Is there, though, any reasonable prospect? Israel certainly thinks there is, that these attacks could do real harm to Hezbollah - the current group that's in Hezbollah - that supplies would be cut off, that they would, in fact, be crippled.

Mr. MALLEY: It's possible. I mean, again, you know, we'll have to wait and see what actually happens, how long the war lasts, what Hezbollah's arsenal really is and how domestically there is political constituents react to Hezbollah. History is not - does not give us reason for much optimism on that score. But certainly it is Israel's calculation right now, and the United States' calculation right now, that every time you destroy a rocket or a rocket launcher and every time you kill a militant, you're doing that much better.

I think those kinds of metrics just, you know - if we look at Iraq, it hasn't quite worked that way. How many times have corners been turned? How many times have we mentioned that, you know, we have managed to kill Zarqawi or somebody else? And it hasn't really helped because the dynamic of the conflict is such that they could always replenish. And there will always be a limit to how much military power Israel or the United States can exercise.

And at some level it comes down - it will come down to this, and it is a battle of wills. And I certainly don't want to suggest that the conclusion is preordained, but the issue is who is going to fear instability more? Who's going to fear chaos more? And who can sustain violence for longer?

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. MALLEY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Robert Malley is Middle East program director at The International Crisis Group. He was President Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs in his second administration.

Tomorrow, another view on whether violence is necessary to create a new Middle East.

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