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Analysts Fear Disaster in U.S. Course

Two big crises -- Iraq and Lebanon -- show signs of becoming one really, really big emergency.
 
 
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Alarms are definitely on the rise here.

And it's not just because the British police arrested 21 people who were allegedly plotting to bomb up to 10 jetliners between London and the United States in mid-flight over the Atlantic Ocean. Although that probably didn't help.

It's more the sense that the growing number of crises in the "new Middle East," proudly midwifed by the administration of President George W. Bush, is rapidly spinning out of control with potentially catastrophic consequences for the entire region and beyond.

The ongoing war between Israel and Hezbollah -- not to imminent expansion of Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon if it does not get a U.N. Security Council resolution to its liking -- has, by virtually all accounts, inflamed and radicalised the Islamic world and rendered a larger regional conflagration much more likely.

At the same time, Wednesday's report that an unprecedented 1,815 bodies, 90 percent victims of violence, were brought to the Baghdad's morgue last month -- eclipsing the previous record established in June by some 250 corpses -- appeared to confirm the increasingly widespread view here that Iraq is moving headlong towards civil war, if it isn't already in one, as many regional experts have contended for some time.

"Two full-blown crises, in Lebanon and Iraq, are merging into a single emergency," noted Washington's former U.N. Ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, in an uncharacteristically alarming column in Thursday's Washington Post.

The column's title, "The Guns of August," was a reference to a book about the diplomatic follies and indecisive battles that launched Europe into a devastating world war in 1914.

"A chain reaction could spread quickly almost anywhere between Cairo and Bombay," Holbrooke warned. "...The combination of combustible elements poses the greatest threat to global stability since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, history's only nuclear superpower confrontation."

Among other things, noted Holbrooke, a top candidate for secretary of state if Democrats had won the presidency in 2000 or 2004, Turkey is threatening to invade northern Iraq; the world's largest anti-Israel demonstrations are taking place in downtown Baghdad; Syria may yet be pulled into the Lebanon war; Afghanistan is under growing threat from a resurgent Taliban; and India is threatening about punitive action against Pakistan for its alleged involvement in the recent train bombings in Bombay.

Particularly alarming to Holbrooke, as to a steadily growing number of Republican realists and other members of the traditional U.S. foreign policy elite, is the apparent complacency of the Bush administration in the face of these events.

Indeed, since the outbreak of the Lebanon crisis four weeks ago, a succession of former top Republican policy-makers -- including Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to former presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush; the younger Bush's former deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage; and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass -- has called publicly for a major reassessment of U.S. Middle East policy and its conduct of the "global war on terror."

Their common message is the necessity of pressing Israel for a quick ceasefire in Lebanon, engaging directly with Syria and Iran on both Lebanon and Iraq, and restarting a serious peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It has been echoed by leading Democrats, including former President Jimmy Carter; his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski; and former secretaries of state Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, as well as by Holbrooke himself.

To these appeals, however -- as well as to the worsening of the twin crises themselves -- the administration has appeared largely deaf. "There is little public sign that the president and his top advisers recognise how close we are to a chain reaction, or that they have any larger strategy beyond tactical actions," Holbrooke noted.

The one, at least partial, exception has been Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice whose State Department, a bastion of realism, has been under almost constant attack since the outset of the Lebanon crisis by the same coalition of neo-conservatives, assertive nationalists, and Christian rightists led by Vice President Dick Cheney that led the drive to war in Iraq.

In the early stages of the latest war, Rice, who is also the only senior administration official who has been in constant communication with European and Arab leaders, was most outspoken about the importance of Israel exercising restraint and not attacking civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. She was reportedly infuriated when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert failed to follow through on a pledge to suspend aerial attacks for two days late last month.

Rice, a Scowcroft protégée, has supported talks with Syria on the crisis, and, according to an account published this week in Insight magazine, a publication of the right-wing Washington Times, has also argued in favour of engaging Iran.

Before the Lebanon crisis, Rice appeared to be successfully moving U.S. policy gradually, if fitfully, towards a more realist position, particularly with respect to Iran. But she has now run into a brick wall in Bush himself, according to Insight.

"For the last 18 months, Condi was given nearly carte blanche in setting foreign policy guidelines," it quoted one "senior government source" as saying. "All of a sudden, the president has a different opinion and he wants the last word."

Her problems, however, may not be confined to Bush, according to another report in Thursday's New York Times, which suggested that Cheney -- and his mainly neo-conservative advisers -- has become increasingly assertive in the latest crisis in support of Israel's efforts to crush Hezbollah. (In fact, some of his unofficial advisers, such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and former Defence Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, have called for expanding the war to Syria and even Iran.)

In that respect, the current situation recalls the humiliation of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's who in early 2002 sought to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to halt Israel's military offensive in the Palestinian territories -- only to be undercut back home by Cheney and, ironically, by then-national security adviser Rice herself.

"She had as much to do with cutting his legs out from under him vis-à-vis the Middle East as anyone else -- either through outright agreement with Cheney, or, at the minimum, complicity with his views so as to draw even closer to Bush," according to ret. Col Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's former chief of staff at the State Department.

That experience, of course, confirmed the demise of realist influence in Bush's first term, at least with respect to the Middle East.

That Rice may now find herself in a similar position, having to contend with a resurgent Cheney-led coalition of hawks who are not so much complacent about the course of current events in the Middle East as convinced that their strategy of regional "transformation" by military means will be vindicated, is what is perhaps particularly alarming about the present moment.

"This whole business is nuts -- unless, of course, you believe what the rumor-mongers are beginning to pass around," wrote Wilkerson in reference to the Lebanon war in an email exchange with IPS. "(T)hat this entire affair was ginned up by Bush/Cheney and certain political leaders in Tel Aviv to give cover for the eventual attack by the U.S. on Iran. At first, I refused to believe what seemed to be such insanity. But I am not so certain any longer."

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief for Inter Press Service .