For nearly three weeks, George W. Bush played bluff poker with the rest of the world. The stake was not only Lebanese women, children and men but this country's reputation as humanitarian and caring. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came home Monday, America's once bright image was covered with mud and blood.
At least, her advocates could say, Ms. Rice had managed to extract assurances there would be no Israeli jets over the country for 48 hours, hardly time to arrange the evacuation of families such as those killed over the weekend.
Survivors related how the dead, mostly children, hoped to go north but were afraid of meeting the death visited on others. News media reported stories about people fleeing in family cars targeted by Israeli missiles. In one instance an emergency vehicle was hit, all occupants killed; it was struck in the middle of the rooftop Red Cross.
Fortunately for Mr. Bush, the possibility of a cease-fire was raised at the same time The New York Times and many other publications ran a picture of Israeli paratroops coming back from the war's front. Although they carried a wounded comrade on his litter, they were singing hard enough to twist their faces. To them, obviously, they were engaged in children's games, a sport in which their victory seemed certain as their youth.
Unfortunately for Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice, the brokered pause in all-out mayhem lasted less than 24 hours. Jerusalem explained its air force was only supporting ground troops, as if that justified what the refugees found inexplicable. There was no word yet of wholesale evacuations to remove thoroughly frightened human beings from harm's way. The latest jet attacks threw that possibility into doubt.
In Middle Eastern logic, Israeli leaders could defend the resumed bombing because they had never officially announced the moratorium; the Americans did. They hadn't meant, obviously, they would keep their jets on the ground while their army invaded deeper.
The Israeli version, as I heard, was the insurgents attacked a tank and they were forced to respond. In the other incident, a drone intended for a leading insurgent killed, instead, Lebanese soldiers.
The very essence of groups like Hezbollah is to provoke reaction. Since they lack the means or manpower to engage in direct combat, that's what they do. Any nation that falls for their tactics reveals nothing more than the fact it was looking for an excuse to do what it inevitably was going to do.
Ironically, all those lives lost and shattering damages promise to turn out for nothing. Once again Lebanon is poised to prove the undoing of its militaristic neighbor. Some 20 years ago war hero-turned-defense minister Ariel Sharon mounted an invasion. That one was intended to chase the Palestinian Liberation Organization and all its troops, those not killed by the invaders, into the sea. And it succeeded, in the short term.
Yasser Arafat and his henchmen found refuge in Tunisia, a country that, as a nation, played little role in Middle East fighting. In offering the PLO a refuge, the small North African nation could provide little protection. The Israeli Mossad pulled a lightning raid, seeking to wipe out the exile's leadership; they missed by moments.
In the end, world opinion forced Israel to open its doors. Yasser Arafat died in Palestine. If anything, his personal humiliation as the primary goal of his enemies' machinations contributed enormously to his standing among fellow Arab people and nations.
Despite massacres in refugee camps and other bloody attempts at intimidation, Jerusalem was forced to remove its forces that occupied south Lebanon; moreover, their presence provoked the start of Hezbollah, a group formed to disrupt further Israeli incursions. The Shiite insurgents swarmed into territory left vacant by the withdrawal.
Mr. Bush has made the point that the terrorist/resistance organization (take your pick) receives funding and weaponry from Syria and Iran. That's scarcely a secret. Both nations are ruled by Shiites but of different sects. In the instance of Teheran, its arsenal most certainly contains a thermonuclear device; intended, if for no other purpose, than to counter Israeli weapons of mass destruction, which Jerusalem steadfastly denies.
But the world knows they're there, courtesy of the late Charles de Gaulle, the French president who viewed himself in semi-divine form, above such considerations as maintaining an arms balance in the world. Saddam Hussein's threat to knock out the Dimona nuclear facility contributed, in a major way, to the campaign to topple his throne. The prospect of the ultimate weapon in Hezbollah's hands has much to do with the Israeli fury to wipe out all its adherents.
Here is the chief flaw in Mr. Bush's thinking, reflected in Jerusalem's strategies: Neither Hezbollah nor al-Qaeda consists strictly of people; both are ideas that, like diseases, are easily spread around. As we've seen, the use of armed force serves chiefly to increase the insurgents' resistance. It has been said the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been the best recruiting tool for Osama bin-Laden's group.
It can be projected, similarly, that Israel has enormously boosted Hezbollah among Arabs, Sunnis and Christians, as well as their fellow Shiites. Filling their ranks again and again will be easy in the long run.
Once again I'm reminded of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, which lasted less than 100 years because the crusaders, who had recaptured the Holy City from Muslims, persisted in creating enemies among the neighboring people. The latest military actions by Israel, in both Palestine's Gaza Strip and south Lebanon, have played directly into the hands of the Jewish nation's enemies, in the rest of the world as well as the Middle East.
The president's insisted rejection of a cease fire, while literally hundreds of innocents are being slaughtered, makes this nation yet again a loser, subject to the penalties and attacks that come with defeat.
My poor country!