Mideast Conflict Has Ripple Effect in Washington The ongoing conflict in Lebanon, Israel and Gaza will have effects far beyond the Middle East. Guest host Sheilah Kast talks with NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving about what recent events might mean for U.S. foreign policy.
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Mideast Conflict Has Ripple Effect in Washington

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Mideast Conflict Has Ripple Effect in Washington

Mideast Conflict Has Ripple Effect in Washington

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Sheilah Kast.

The impact of missiles from Hezbollah and Israel will not be limited to Lebanon and Israel. They're also likely to have consequences for the Bush administration's foreign policy and its focus in Iraq. New fighting in the region comes as the Pentagon planned to withdraw some troops from Iraq this fall, and to rely more on the Baghdad government and its security forces. With the region enflamed, however, it's not clear what direction U.S. policy may take in the months ahead. President Bush finds himself with many decisions to make and few options to choose from.

Joining us to talk about how all this plays in the world and in Washington is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

If we can generalize at this stage in the fighting, Ron, does this conflict make President Bush stronger or weaker in the world? And how does it affect his standing at home?

RON ELVING reporting:

For the morning - for the moment, at least, Sheilah, I think we have to say it heightens his importance as a world figure, as the central figure, really, among global leaders. The United States is the biggest outside player in the Middle East and President Bush is seen as embodying the U.S. So in that sense I think he's enhanced by this tension and conflict.

And there's also an opportunity here, an extraordinary moment, really, for President Bush to change the perception of his role in the world. He has an historic opportunity to play the peacemaker. He can try to broker a cease-fire and an agreement that would end the fighting on terms that Israel could accept.

Now, this is a role that other presidents in both parties have taken on in the past. At the home front, I think it gets a little bit more complicated. I think we'll see some rally round affect, at least in the short-term. And in moments of crisis, people like to back their leader, sort out the whys and wherefores later. And down the road, well, it depends on what happens next, on how the fighting goes, how long it goes, who seems to prevail.

But one thing, I think, is apparent at this juncture is that whatever progress the United States has made toward our dream of democratizing and pacifying this region is as fragile as ever. And that's a big blow to the administration and to the president, politically, both at home and abroad.

KAST: It appears that in one sense, the U.S. and Israel are positioned exactly where their enemies want them, side to side against the world.

ELVING: That's right.

KAST: Is that a fair description?

ELVING: Hmm. I'm afraid it is - alone together, as the old song went. We've been there with Israel before, after 1967 and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and so on. And that's part of what, in a sense, has made this two-nation partnership strong, that long history. In this case, however, several things are different. The big one is that we're already in the region with an army pinned down in Iraq, a smaller commitment under strain in Afghanistan. And that has already put us in a position where the world is watching us in the Middle East, and where we do not have as much maneuvering room as we have had in the past.

KAST: What kind of reaction can we expect to see from Congress?

ELVING: Congress, I believe, is going to look upon this as a moment of crisis in which they also need to rally around the president. And the president will be the beneficiary of their support in at least the short run. I think the Commander-in-Chief always gets the benefit of the doubt in a shooting war. But I don't think Congress in general is going to see Israel as just doing its job, just protecting itself. I think there'll be some sentiment that they've gone beyond that. And depending on how bloody this gets, how many setbacks there are, how many provocations on both sides, there could be some backlash developing in some corners of Congress that would spell trouble for the administration on a lot of different issues.

We've got a lot of hanging fire right now. There's the detainee rights matter, with having to do with the Guantanamo Bay detainees. And you've also got Congress trying to write rules to respond to the Supreme Court ruling on that, and trying to write rules to respond to revelations about eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, all of these things with enormous national security implications and sensitivities, and at a moment like this, there's going to be tremendous pressure on Congress to go along with what the president wants, and there's also going to be pressure on Congress from their own constituencies to resist that president.

KAST: And so the fighting in the Middle East overshadows the other issues that are facing Washington, domestic issues, other issues?

ELVING: Whenever you have a situation like this, a war kind of situation, really, for a moment at least, nothing else seems to matter. Much as the war overshadowed the G8 Summit, most as - much as the war seems to have overshadowed news of everything else, including the return of the space shuttle and everything else that's going on in the world, it's going to overshadow everything that's going on in Congress.

They're going to try, for example, to turn to a debate on stem cells on Monday and Tuesday. That would normally be a riveting issue that the news media, and Congress, and constituencies, would be paying attention to, overwhelming attention to. But in this particular instance it's probably going to have a harder time getting people's attention. There's so much else on the front page. There's so much else on the television, and people are going to be looking at that.

So down the road it'll be interesting to see how when Congress has a big issue like this that's distracting everyone the debate changes, when they don't assume that the public is paying close attention to everything Congress does.

KAST: Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor, thanks.

ELVING: Thank you, Sheilah.

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