Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Beacon No. 96: Super-Empowered Victims


I just hate to forgive the administration’s diplomatic inaction in the Israeli-Palestinian-Lebanese war, so I won’t—but I can explain it.

As someone said many years ago, a U.S. president can only handle one major crisis at a time—two if they’re extraordinary and served by an extraordinary staff, but no more. When the president decides to focus on a particular crisis, everything else falls by the wayside: fewer policy initiatives, fewer laws proposed, fewer administration personnel on TV explaining what 1600 Pennsylvania is thinking.

In a period so seemingly filled with crises both domestic (fuel prices, economic uncertainty, the congressional mid-term elections) and foreign (DPRK missile tests, rallying nations against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Iraq war, the Afghanistan insurgency, the G8 summit), it’s difficult for a president to choose one thing to focus on and do well. Add a wholly unexpected war between Israel and two of its neighbors, with potential for involving Syria as well, and you have a recipe for executive paralysis.

The administration faces a particularly well-endowed adversary in Iran, which can cause trouble for the U.S. in no fewer than four of the areas I mentioned above: fuel prices, its avowed nuclear program, southern and central Iraq, and western and central Afghanistan.

Like the proverbial tube of toothpaste, if you squeeze Iran hard on its nuclear program—as the EU, U.S. and UN Security Council were just about to do last week—it pops up in another well-prepared position: Lebanon.

Having its Hizb’ullah proxies kidnap two Israelis set off a war that distracted the EU and revealed Hizb’ullah’s new weapons capabilities (and by extension, Iran’s) in dramatic fashion, while simultaneously undermining the U.S.-European diplomacy that was about to condemn its nuclear program.

As Iran veteran Elaine Sciolino writes in “An Embodiment of Iran’s Long Shadow: Missiles for Hezbollah,”

Iran’s support for Hezbollah’s actions against Israel seems to have a twofold purpose: to deflect attention from Tehran’s impasse with the United States and five other nations over its nuclear program, and to further position itself as a powerful regional player.

“The Iranians are gambling that there won’t be a military attack against them,” said one senior European official who spoke on condition of anonymity, under diplomatic rules. “Iran is trying to say, ‘Nothing is possible without me.’ And for the moment, the nuclear issue is forgotten.”

Indeed, action on a resolution at the United Nations Security Council critical of Iran for failing to suspend its uranium enrichment activities is essentially is on hold because of the crisis in the Middle East.

Absent a military attack by the U.S. on Iran or a total military defeat of Hizb’ullah in Lebanon—go ahead, insert your laughter here—Iran can’t help but come out of this entire crisis ahead.

Thomas Friedman likes to write about Super-Empowered Individuals but in this case, Iran’s brilliant play of two Super-Empowered Victims—the kidnapped Israeli soldiers—has preoccupied Israel, paralyzed the U.S. and the weak Lebanese central government, and drained them variously of blood, treasure and goodwill, all at little cost to itself.

The administration has long neglected the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the eastern Mediterranean generally, except insofar that terrorists and money cross from Jordan and Syria into Iraq. It’s not surprising that if finds itself so distracted by crises and Iran’s full-court deftness that it can’t get more than a single Arabic-speaking American official on Al-Jazeera.

(Thanks to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for pointing me toward the Abu Aardvark item.)

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