Grappling With Conflagration in the Middle East

Fireballs flare up this week on newsstands across the country as the nation's magazines tackle Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

A fire burns on the cover of this week’s issue of The Weekly Standard — one of many fireballs to flare up this week on newsstands across the country. In the foreground, a soldier stands between the reader and the blaze. The headline hangs overhead in the smoke: “Iran’s Proxy War.”

Inside, The Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith captures the global mood swing this week, as the eyes of the world turned from the diversions of soccer wars to the reality of actual wars.

“It seems like only yesterday that a Hezbollah deputy in Lebanon’s parliament was saying that even if Iran wound up playing his beloved Brazilian squad in a World Cup match, he would have to side with Ronaldinho and Co,” writes Smith. “In the last 48 hours, though, it has become clear that when the stakes are really high, Hezbollah is always going to side with Iran, even if this means holding all of Lebanon hostage.”

A few pages later, The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol takes up the thread, arguing that the current conflict isn’t an Arab-Israeli war but rather an Islamist-Israeli war, and one in which Iran’s role is paramount.

“No Islamic Republic of Iran, no Hezbollah,” writes Kristol. “No Islamic Republic of Iran, no one to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. No Iranian support for Syria (a secular government that has its own reasons for needing Iranian help and for supporting Hezbollah and Hamas), little state sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah. And no Shiite Iranian revolution, far less of an impetus for the Saudis to finance the export of the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam as a competitor to Khomeini’s claim for leadership of militant Islam — and thus no Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and perhaps no Hamas either.”

Kristol wasn’t alone. Apparently, President George W. Bush is taking a similar viewpoint.

“There’s a lot of people who believe that the Iranians are trying to exert more and more influence over the entire region and the use of Hezbollah is to create more chaos to advance their strategy,” Bush told Newsweek in an interview this week. The connection between Iran and the current conflict, he said, is “a theory that’s got some legs to it as far as I’m concerned.”

But as Newsweek sees it, Bush’s foreign policy elsewhere in the Middle East may already be undercutting America’s standing on the issue.

“Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as part of the ‘global war on terror’ made America a party to the conflicts on the ground as never before,” adds Newsweek. “Saddam Hussein’s regime, loathsome as it was, provided a strategic balance to the power of a radicalized Iran. Now the invasion has put Washington head-to-head with Tehran. The confrontation is military, economic, political, ideological, direct and indirect, overt and covert-and on several fronts the Iranians appear to have outmaneuvered the administration.”

Elsewhere, the editors at The New Republic gazed into the smoke and saw the ruins of previous media predictions.

“What has been clarified by this round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, first and foremost, the character of Israel’s adversaries,” argues The New Republic. “They are Islamist terrorists, and proud to be so. More ominously, they are Islamist terrorists come to power. Hamas is no longer only a movement; it is now also a government.”

“When Hamas was elected, there was an eruption of assurances in the media that power will breed responsibility, that the drudgeries of governing will usurp the ecstasies of bombing, and so on,” adds The New Republic. “But the Hamas rulers of Palestine have made it plain that they see no contradiction between governing and bombing. Success at the ballot box has had no calming effect. It has merely conferred political legitimacy upon moral depravity.”

Elsewhere, the editors of The Nation took issue with the notion that Hamas had touched off the current round of violence.

“In fact, the current cycle of violence was set off by weeks of Israeli shellings that culminated in the killing of eight Palestinian civilians on a Gaza beach,” argues The Nation. “On a deeper level, the violence arises from the Israeli strategy of unilateralism, in which even the pretense of negotiations is abandoned and Israel alone decides its final borders, while maintaining control over the territories through closures, military assaults and assassination.”

Negotiating an end to the current hostilities along the border will probably require a “third-party interlocutor,” writes Time, which goes on to note that to date the U.S. has hardly seemed likely to serve as peacemaker.

“Bush has showed no interest in engaging in the region in that way, and Washington is handicapped by its unwillingness to negotiate with four of the key players — Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria and Iran — whose interests would have to be addressed. But crises,” Time cryptically concludes, “can sometimes provide opportunities, especially since the U.S. can’t afford to have another Middle East mess on its hands.”

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.