Bush conveyed his strong personal support for the
military offensive during a White House meeting with Olmert
on May 23, according to sources familiar with the thinking of senior
Olmert, who like Bush lacks direct wartime
experience, agreed that a dose of military force against Hezbollah might
damage the guerrilla group’s influence in Lebanon and intimidate its
allies, Iran and Syria, countries that Bush has identified as the chief
obstacles to U.S. interests in the Middle East.
As part of Bush’s determination to create a “new
Middle East” – one that is more amenable to U.S. policies and desires –
Bush even urged Israel to attack Syria, but the Olmert government
refused to go that far, according to Israeli sources.
One source said some Israeli officials thought
Bush’s attack-Syria idea was “nuts” since much of the world would have
seen the bombing campaign as overt aggression.
In an article on July 30, the Jerusalem Post
referred to Bush’s interest in a wider war involving Syria. Israeli
“defense officials told the Post last week that they were receiving
indications from the US that America would be interested in seeing
Israel attack Syria,” the newspaper reported.
While balking at an expanded war into Syria, Olmert
did agree on the need to show military muscle in Lebanon as a prelude to
down Iran over its nuclear program, which Olmert has called an
“existential” threat to Israel.
With U.S. forces bogged down in Iraq, Bush and his
neoconservative advisers saw the inclusion of Israeli forces as crucial
for advancing a strategy that would punish Syria for supporting Iraqi
insurgents, advance the confrontation with Iran and isolate Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
But the month-long war has failed to achieve its
goals of destroying Hezbollah forces in south Lebanon or intimidating
Iran and Syria.
Instead, Hezbollah guerrillas fought Israeli troops
to a virtual standstill in villages near the border and much of the
world saw Israel’s bombing raids across Lebanon – which killed hundreds
of civilians – as “disproportionate.”
Now, as the conflict winds down, some Israeli
officials are ruing the Olmert-Bush pact on May 23 and fault Bush for
pushing Olmert into the conflict.
Soon after the May 23 meeting in Washington, Israel
began to ratchet up pressure on the Hamas-led government in the
Palestinian territories and on Hezbollah and other Islamic militants in
Lebanon. As part of this process, Israel staged low-key attacks in both
Lebanon and Gaza. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com “A
‘Pretext’ War in Lebanon.”]
The tit-for-tat violence led to the Hamas seizure of an Israeli soldier on June 24 and then to Israeli
retaliatory strikes in Gaza. That, in turn, set the stage for
Hezbollah’s attack on an Israeli outpost and the capture of two more
Israeli soldiers on July 12.
Hezbollah’s July 12 raid became the trigger that
Bush and Olmert had been waiting for. With the earlier attacks unknown
or forgotten, Israel and the U.S. skillfully rallied international
condemnation of Hezbollah for what was called an unprovoked attack and a
“kidnapping” of Israeli soldiers.
Behind the international criticism of Hezbollah,
Bush and Olmert justified an intense air campaign against Lebanese
targets, killing civilians and destroying much of Lebanon’s commercial
infrastructure. Israeli troops also crossed into southern Lebanon with
the intent of delivering a devastating military blow against Hezbollah,
which retaliated by firing Katyusha rockets into Israel..
However, the Israeli operation was eerily
reminiscent of the disastrous U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Like
the U.S. assault, Israel relied heavily on “shock and awe” air power and
committed an inadequate number of soldiers to the battle.
Israeli newspapers have been filled with complaints
from soldiers who say some reservists weren’t issued body armor while
other soldiers found their equipment either inferior or inappropriate to
the battlefield conditions.
Israeli troops also encountered fierce resistance
from Hezbollah guerrillas, who took a page from the Iraqi insurgents by
using explosive booby traps and ambushes to inflict heavier than
expected casualties on the Israelis.
Channel 2 in Israel disclosed that several top
military commanders wrote a letter to Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the chief of
staff, criticizing the war planning as chaotic and out of line with the
combat training of the soldiers and officers. [Washington Post, Aug. 12,
One Israeli plan to use llamas to deliver supplies
in the rugged terrain of south Lebanon turned into an embarrassment when
the animals simply sat down.
Reporter Nahum Barnea, who traveled with an Israeli
unit in south Lebanon, compared the battle to “the famous Tom and Jerry
cartoons” with the powerful Israeli military playing the role of the cat
Tom and the resourceful Hezbollah guerrillas playing the mouse Jerry.
“In every conflict between them, Jerry wins,” Barnea wrote.
Back in Israel, some leading newspapers have begun
calling for Olmert’s resignation.
“If Olmert runs away now from the war he initiated,
he will not be able to remain prime minister for even one more day,” the
newspaper Haaretz wrote in a front-page analysis. “You cannot lead an
entire nation to war promising victory, produce humiliating defeat and
remain in power.
“You cannot bury 120 Israelis in cemeteries, keep a
million Israelis in shelters for a month and then say, ‘Oops, I made a
mistake.’” [See Washington Post, Aug. 12, 2006]
For his part, Bush spent July and early August
fending off international demands for an immediate cease-fire. Bush
wanted to give Olmert as much time as possible to bomb targets across
Lebanon and dislodge Hezbollah forces in the south.
But instead of turning the Lebanese population
against Hezbollah – as Washington and Tel Aviv had hoped – the
devastation rallied public support behind Hezbollah.
As the month-long conflict took on the look of a
public-relations disaster for Israel, the Bush administration dropped
its resistance to international cease-fire demands and joined with
France in crafting a United Nations plan for stopping the fighting.
Quoting “a senior administration official” with
Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the New York Times reported that
“it increasingly seemed that Israel would not be able to achieve a
military victory, a reality that led the Americans to get behind a
cease-fire.” [NYT, Aug. 12, 2006]
But the repercussions from Israel’s failed Lebanon
offensive are likely to continue. Olmert must now confront the
political damage at home and the chief U.S. adversaries in the Middle
East may be emboldened by the outcome, more than chastened.
As in the Iraq War, Bush has revealed again how
reliance on tough talk and military might can sometimes undercut – not
build up – U.S. influence in the strategically important Middle East.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'