The most alarming aspect of the unfolding crisis in the Middle East isn't how many actors are jumping in. It's who is opting to stay out. Hamas, Hizballah and Israel are directly involved; Iran and Syria by proxy; Lebanon against its will. The U.N. is dispatching its mediators; the European Union is contemplating doing the same. But the U.S., despite colossal strategic stakes, threats to its own security, potential repercussions in Iraq, not to mention staggering loss of life, remains on the sidelines. The world's sole superpower is also its only no-show.
This is by design. From early on, the diplomacy of the Bush Administration has been guided by a straightforward logic: engagement is a reward, misbehavior ought not be rewarded; ergo, misbehaving parties are not to be engaged. The thinking is that isolation, ostracism and, if need be, sanctions are more likely to get troublesome actors to change their ways. And so the list of diplomatic outcasts only grows. Today the U.S. does not talk to Iran, Syria, Hamas, the elected Palestinian government or Hizballah. And as the violence in the region clearly shows, that has hardly been cause for moderation. President Bush once famously observed that the U.S. had sanctioned itself out of all leverage on Iran. In truth, it has worked itself out of much influence on the region.
And that's only half the problem. Since 2000, with the collapse of any Arab-Israeli peace process, the start of the war on terrorism and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, regional actors have lacked a clear compass, rules of the road or a referee. Syria is being told to clean up its act in Lebanon and Iraq; Iran to drop its nuclear program and to stop meddling in its neighbor's affairs; Hamas to undergo an ideological revolution; Hizballah to disarm. All are perfectly justifiable demands, but none are being accompanied by a clear and appealing incentive for the parties' taking such actions--other, that is, than avoiding retribution if they do not.
As a result of this diplomatic vacuum, the only factor constraining the behavior of the various parties has been their mutual fear. Israel has been worried that Hizballah might launch Katyusha rockets on Haifa, Syria that Israel might wipe out its army or regime, Hamas and Hizballah that their entire leadership could become fair game. But such apprehension always was at most a feeble restraint, because in an unregulated environment, the only thing more costly than disregarding one's fears is displaying them. In the past weeks, that last and flimsy inhibition finally gave way. The conflict no longer is about achieving a specific objective--it's about imposing new rules of conduct, re-establishing one's deterrence, redesigning the region's strategic map. Stopping such fighting is a tall order, precisely because the protagonists' main goal is to demonstrate they are not afraid to prolong it.
It certainly won't be halted without robust, credible and influential third-party involvement. None of the actors will want to appear overly eager for a cease-fire, but more than a few might--at the appropriate time--leap at an outsider's proposed deal. That happened before, in the 1980s and 1990s, when Lebanon was the arena for similar proxy wars and when the U.S., then the energetic mediator, was the instrument of diplomatic negotiations. Without U.S. support, it's doubtful that the U.N.'s mediators will be able to muster similar muscle.