Condi speaks (I think), on background

In his New York Times column yesterday (“Talking about terror,” behind TimesSelect), David Brooks describes a conversation with “a policy maker that sheds light on where we’ve been and where we’re going.” He shares a “truncated version” of the conversation in the column. The conversation appears to me to have been a background briefing by Condoleezza Rice and Brooks’s summary is worth quoting in full as a reflection of administration policy:

Policy Maker: Israel began this war with an almost unprecedented level of legitimacy. Unfortunately, that was forfeited during the first days with the bombing campaign, which seemed to punish all of Lebanon instead of just Hezbollah. If Sharon were still functioning, perhaps he would have insisted on a better plan, but this may be another case of a just war poorly executed.

Me: But wasn’t this war a test case of whether it is even possible to defeat a terrorist force with military might? After all, no army is going to know this kind of enemy better than Israel’s. Maybe the Islamists have simply come up with a conceptual breakthrough that makes them difficult to defeat. They’ve grasped that the more they endanger their own people and get them killed, the better it is for them politically. Israel or the U.S. gets blamed. That’s like a superweapon in the media war.

Has Israel at least degraded Hezbollah militarily?

P: Not enough to give them the sense they’re being defeated. In any case, we’ve worked out an arrangement with France that should stop the fighting early next week. This may sound odd, but U.S. relations with France have hardly been better. We’re working remarkably closely across a whole range of Middle East issues because we have the same understanding and goals.

In Lebanon there will be a truce that will leave the current armies in place (which the Israelis won’t like). Then we can insert an international force. We won’t be able to disarm Hezbollah but we may be able to help the Lebanese Army secure the border.

The thing to understand is that the international force may never materialize. The key is Hezbollah. If they decide to harvest their gains by becoming a peaceful player in the Lebanese government, then the international force can come in. But if they decide to destabilize the government and turn Lebanon into a host for their war with Israel then there’ll be no force. Israel would have to find a way to withdraw at a time of its own choosing. But if Hezbollah keeps fighting it will have accepted responsibility for breaking the international deal, and Israel will have greater freedom to act.

M: Is it possible to flip Syria?

P: The U.S. and others have channels open to Syria, but its interest diverges from ours. Its interest is the increased weakness of the Lebanese government.

The wider situation is that most governments around Israel no longer want war. But the governments are weak, so terror armies can form within those states. If Israel tries to attack those armies, it ends up weakening the central governments it is trying to bolster. That’s the dilemma.

The U.S. and Europe would like to strengthen those central governments. We don’t have a policy of externally imposed regime change. We’re trying to create conditions to allow those governments to make better decisions and make slow progress toward freedom. But Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah want to hollow out those moderate governments from within.

The first group of Islamists like Al Qaeda have utopian agendas. But Iran and Hezbollah have more realistic agendas, more indigenous support and are thus more dangerous. Think of the way early 20th-century anarchists in Europe led eventually to the Nazis and Leninists.

M: So what is the U.S. doing?

P: The U.S. is trying to be at the center of a group of like-minded countries that want to preserve the viability of governments that prefer peaceful evolution to violent revolution.

We’re part of a united front on Iranian nukes. The odds are there will be sanctions against Iran by the end of the year, though how strong I don’t know. We’re trying to build a successful government in Iraq. We have to get out from under the blow to our authority caused by the torture and detainee issues. And we have to get aggressive on the Palestinian problem. That’s essential to strengthen moderate regimes.

We’re not going to be spending as much blood or treasure as over the past few years. We have to make up for it with diplomacy backed by a hint of steel.

I emphasize that I may well be wrong that it is Secretary Rice speaking, but I doubt that Brooks would give over his column in this way to a lesser figure. In any event, whatever Bush administration “policy maker” it is, the column provides a useful if disappointing guide to administration thinking on Israel’s war against Hezbollah and related administration diplomacy.

UPDATE: Reader Jim Osborn writes:

I think it was irresponsible to publish this and attribute it to Rice. Would she say, “We don’t have a policy of externally imposed regime change”? Would she say, “Al Qaeda [has a] utopian agenda”? I don’t think Rice is that naive!

I repeat: My attribution of the comments to Secretary Rice is tentative and hypothetical. The substance of the comments and their reflection of administration policy is the point.

MORE: I did a little digging to ascertain whether my speculation regarding the identity of Brooks’s interviewee was or was not correct and have concluded that I was probably mistaken.

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