The stumbling diplomatic dance around the on-again, off-again, maybe-sorta Israeli bombing suspension has us (in the manner of Condi Rice's recent photos) rubbing our foreheads.
First we have the Bush administration's basic position, which, it's fair to say, has all along been: It's time to clean house in Lebanon. Let Israel do whatever it wants. Cease-fires are for wimps (unless they're real, manly cease-fires that are agreed to only after you have pulverized your enemy and achieved your goals). Then we have a succession of escalatingly awful events on the ground culminating in the Qana carnage -- events that not only feature civilian bloodshed but that also immediately and directly harm the administration's "war on terror" by discrediting the U.S. among the Muslim populations whose hearts and minds we are supposed to be winning over. Finally, we have the U.S. engineering a slight slowdown in the Israeli onslaught -- trumpeted on front pages as a "concession." This "concession" is so limited it has to be announced by American spokespeople rather than Israel itself, and before long it turns out to be so limited as to be nearly meaningless.
What, in all this confusion, is the Bush administration really up to? Some possibilities:
1) They really mean it when they say that they only want a cease-fire if it can be a lasting cease-fire. Probably they do "mean it" in the sense that this accurately represents the wishful thinking of the president and vice president. As that wishful thinking collides with reality, however, the stance becomes increasingly irrelevant.
2) They think victory for Israel is just over the next ridge -- the way it is for the U.S. in Iraq. Therefore holding Israel back from delivering a coup de grâce against the Hezbollah terrorists would hurt the "global war on terror"; civilian casualties are regrettable but it's more important to let Israel get the job done. The assumption here is that, given enough time, the Israeli military machine will get the job done. Unfortunately for Bush (and the Israelis), at the moment the Lebanon campaign looks no more effective at establishing the invader's invincibility than the Iraq invasion was at demonstrating American power.
3) It's a throw-the-gameboard over move. Things in the Middle East are so bad for the U.S. right now that Bush's team wants to go for broke. We have hints that Washington is egging Israel on to take on Syria (see Josh Marshall's post). With Iraq spiraling the drain and Iran ascendant, Bush sees Israel's Lebanon campaign as the only way to create a new "opportunity" (to use Rice's term) in the Middle East. This scenario would be easier to credit if the neocon gang (Wolfowitz, Feith, et al.) that took us into Iraq were still manning the fort. Today we can only hope and pray that the reality quotient in policymaking circles is a little higher.
4) There is no one at the wheel. "Let it play out" might be a calculated stance, but it could also be the pure deer-in-the-headlights paralysis of a White House that is so far out of its depth it cannot muster any sort of coherent response to a crisis. In other words, there might not be method to this madness; in the immortal words of Martin Sheen's Willard in "Apocalypse Now," "I don't see any method at all."
I don't know about you, but my sinking-gut feeling is that this last scenario is the most likely.