As Condoleezza Rice sat in Annapolis, Md., this week, watching unpopular statesmen pledge to undertake vague negotiations toward an undefined peace, she might have recalled the moment, almost a year and a half ago, when an opportunity for a real breakthrough was within reach—and she, and her president, let it slide by.
It happened in July 2006, a few days after Hezbollah militiamen in southern Lebanon fired rockets into northern Israel, stole across the border, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, and killed three others, prompting retaliation from Israeli rockets and artillery. On July 18, the Arab League, meeting in an emergency summit in Cairo, released a statement—authored by Saudi Arabia—condemning Hezbollah for committing "unexpected, inappropriate, and irresponsible acts."
This was an astonishing event. The official stance of most of these states was that Israel had no right to exist; yet here they were, upholding Israel's right to coexist in peace and to defend itself from attack.
Dennis Ross, the former Middle East envoy to President Bill Clinton and to the first President Bush, received a call from a friend at the State Department, who asked what he thought George W. Bush should do in response.
Ross replied that Condi Rice, with whom he had worked in Bush 41's National Security Council, should fly to the Middle East right away. The Saudi statement, he said, marked a potential turning point—a rare, if not unprecedented, opportunity to forge a new alignment between Arabs and Israelis, not only on Lebanon but also on the gamut of contentious issues. The Saudis needed to coordinate a common Arab position on Israel-Lebanon security. The Israelis needed to cut back on their airstrikes, to align their military tactics with feasible political objectives. Neither the Saudis nor the Israelis could do this on their own; they had no diplomatic relations, and it would be politically risky for either to make the first move. They needed the United States as a go-between. In short, this was a prime moment to revive the art of shuttle diplomacy. But Ross emphasized, it was just a moment; it wouldn't last.
Quite separately, Philip Zelikow, Rice's counselor at the State Department and another longtime friend and colleague, had a similar idea. He sent her a memo, encouraging her to fly to Israel—preferably to Haifa, the northern city where Hezbollah rockets were exploding—to display American solidarity. Then she should pressure Israeli officials to stop the airstrikes—which would have no political effect—and to nudge them, and the region's other powers, into a settlement.
Bush and Rice were attending a G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the time. Tony Blair, still Britain's prime minister, also urged Bush to send Rice to the region immediately, noting that the conflict could quickly "spiral out of control." Bush interrupted him and said (on an open mike), "Yeah, she's going, I think Condi's going to go pretty soon."
But she didn't go to the Middle East for another week, and by that time, the moment—as Ross had warned—was over.
Why did Bush and Rice pass up this chance? While I was doing research on a forthcoming book on foreign and military policy (titled Daydream Believers), former Bush officials—including Zelikow—told me there were two reasons.
First, they said, Bush was disinclined to do shuttle diplomacy because that was what previous presidents did, and he wasn't like previous presidents, especially the one named Clinton. Second, he wanted to wait a while, to give the Israelis a chance to demolish Hezbollah.
This latter hope was a delusion. To have any chance of destroying Hezbollah, Israel would need to send a massive invasion force into southern Lebanon. Yet Israel had only recently ended an 18-year occupation there, and few of its people or leaders had the stomach to start another one. The Israeli military's chief of staff, Gen. Dan Halutz, was an air force officer who convinced inexperienced Cabinet ministers that he could win the battle with air power alone—emulating the greatest miscalculation of recent American strategy.
By the time Rice finally got on a plane, Israel had stepped up its bombing and shelling so drastically—displacing and killing so many Lebanese civilians in the process, to no avail—that the Arab powers backed away from their condemnation of Hezbollah. (Even some Israeli newspaper columnists were criticizing the escalation as "disproportionate.")