The cabinet debated military options during an acrimonious six-hour meeting that occasionally dissolved into shouting matches among members torn between the public's growing anger over the military's failure to stop Hezbollah rocket attacks and concerns that enlarging an already treacherous battlefield will result in high numbers of combat casualties, according to participants.
Wednesday's toll drove home those fears -- 15 soldiers were killed and 25 wounded in Israel's worst day of battlefield deaths since the conflict began, according to Israeli military officials.
More casualties are certain, given how disciplined and well-armed Hezbollah fighters have proven to be, but the airstrikes, despite their ferocity, are simply not preventing Hezbollah from launching an average of a hundred rockets a day into Israel.
Despite the authorization, the time quired to build-up the Israeli forces needed to conduct the operation allows a small window for a diplomatic resolution. And despite our efforts with France to draft some kind of resolution that would produce a cease-fire, U.S. officials are not asking Israel to delay the ground assault:
During the cabinet meeting, Olmert telephoned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, according to Israeli and U.S. officials. During their half-hour conversation, Rice did not ask Olmert to hold back on the ground assault. "He can judge for himself how close or not to a resolution we are or how acceptable or unacceptable it is," a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "She talked him through where we are, what we're going through and where we hope to end up. It's the same conversation she had with Siniora."
In other words, things are on track for a larger incursion into southern Lebanon, and we're further away from a resolution than ever.
Richard Holbrooke has some words for this administration in today's Washington Post:
Under the universally accepted doctrine of self-defense, which is embodied in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, there is no question that Israel has a legitimate right to take action against a group that has sworn to destroy it and had hidden some 13,000 missiles in southern Lebanon. In these circumstances, American support for Israel is essential, as it has been since the time of Truman...
But the United States must also understand, and deal with, the wider consequences of its own actions and public statements, which have caused an unprecedented decline in America's position in much of the world and are provoking dangerous new anti-American coalitions and encouraging a new generation of terrorists. American disengagement from active Middle East diplomacy since 2001 has led to greater violence and a decline in U.S. influence. Others have been eager to fill the vacuum. (Note the sudden emergence of France as a key player in the current burst of diplomacy.)
American policy has had the unintended, but entirely predictable, effect of pushing our enemies closer together. Throughout the region, Sunnis and Shiites have put aside their hatred of each other just long enough to join in shaking their fists -- or doing worse -- at the United States and Israel. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, our troops are coming under attack by both sides -- Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents. If this continues, the U.S. presence in Baghdad has no future.
What should we be doing instead?
On the diplomatic front, the United States cannot abandon the field to other nations (not even France!) or the United Nations. Every secretary of state from Henry Kissinger to Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright negotiated with Syria, including those Republican icons George Shultz and James Baker. Why won't this administration follow suit, in full consultation with Israel at every step? This would clearly be in Israel's interest. Instead, administration officials refuse direct talks and say publicly, "Syria knows what it must do" -- a statement that denies the very point of diplomacy.
The same is true of talks with Iran, although these would be more difficult. Why has the world's leading nation stood aside for over five years and allowed the international dialogue with Tehran to be conducted by Europeans, the Chinese and the United Nations? And why has that dialogue been restricted to the nuclear issue -- vitally important, to be sure, but not as urgent at this moment as Iran's sponsorship and arming of Hezbollah and its support of actions against U.S. forces in Iraq?
There's nothing shocking or new here. Holbrooke is just expressing diplomatic common-sense. What are our goals? A resolution of a conflict in Lebanon, the eventual disarmament of Hezbollah, stability in Iraq, the cessation of Iran's nuclear program...none of these things can be achieved by force alone. If this administration were at all serious about any of these goals, they'd drop the ideology (and dump the hawks and neo-cons overboard), recognize that talking to our enemies is not "rewarding" them, and accept that you must sometimes give things to your enemies to get what you want out of them. And that's pretty much the long and short of it.