Bush options limited

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, having stayed mostly on the sidelines during the latest Middle East crisis, now faces the threat of a broader regional conflict with few options for defusing it.

Distracted by the war in Iraq and preoccupied with Iran and North Korea, the US government kept its distance as Israeli forces struck the Gaza Strip in recent weeks after Palestinian Hamas fighters kidnapped an Israeli soldier.

But with fighting expanding to the Israel-Lebanon front and threatening to spread further, some Middle East experts say Washington’s hands-off policy has only made matters worse.

“Disengagement has contributed to a deterioration of the situation and has put the United States in a position where it doesn’t have the same kind of leverage it used to,” said Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy under former president Bill Clinton.

Friends and critics alike have started calling on President George W. Bush, in Russia for a Group of Eight summit, to urgently revive Washington’s role as regional peace-broker.

Some are urging him to name a personal envoy like Colin Powell, his former secretary of state.

They fear that otherwise the violence could spiral out of control, drawing in Syria and Iran. Israel and the United States accuse the two of complicity in this week’s raid by Lebanese Hizbollah fighters who captured two Israeli soldiers.

But Bush has limited room to manoeuvre diplomatically at a time when his administration is already overstretched on the foreign policy front.

Unchecked by US

White House officials have made clear the president has no intention of trying to rein in US ally Israel despite appeals from European and Arab leaders who say Israel’s military response has gone too far.

Israeli warplanes have struck not only Hizbollah targets but civilian installations. Hizbollah has fired barrages of rockets across the border into Israeli towns and cities.

Bush has insisted Israel has the right to protect itself though he has urged it to avoid civilian casualties or harm to the fragile Lebanese government, which he views as one of his success stories in his push for Middle East democracy.

But he is seen as unlikely to exert serious pressure on the Jewish state, which would not sit well with the powerful US pro-Israel lobby ahead of November’s congressional election.

That could widen divisions among G-8 summit partners at a time when Bush is trying to persuade them to take steps against Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programmes.

Analysts say Washington has even less leverage over Syria and Iran, which US officials consider the linchpins for getting Hizbollah to hand over their captives.

“The US already has sanctions on Iran and Syria, two state players… who can keep this situation from turning into a conflagration,” said Jon Alterman, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “There are not a lot of other ways to punish them.”

Syria’s demand

He said Syria would demand an easing of US economic pressure in exchange for any cooperation, a price the Bush administration is loathe to pay.

As a result, Alterman said, Washington would quietly acquiesce if Israel carried out an air raid on Syria to send a message that it will be held accountable. Such an attack would risk testing Iran’s pledge to come to Syria’s defence.

Analysts say Iran sees the Lebanon crisis as a way to remind Washington of the vulnerability of US allies and interests if the administration seeks United Nations sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear ambitions.

The fighting has already cast doubt on chances that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will go ahead anytime soon with partial removal of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, a proposal Bush had cautiously embraced.

Warning of the threat of a wider conflict, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska urged Bush on Friday to send a high-level envoy to the region and suggested  Powell or James Baker, another former secretary of state, as possible candidates.

Democrats agreed, saying it was time for Bush to get involved. “It’s a very thankless task but if the United States is not engaged at high levels… it gets worse,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

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