WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) – The swift defeat of U.S.-backed forces by Hezbollah in Lebanon on May 9 has provided yet another vivid illustration of the rapid decline of Washington’s influence in the Middle East during the tenure of President George W. Bush.

Mr. Bush’s trip to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt was never conceived as a triumphant “victory lap” around the region, but the events in Lebanon will no doubt cast a long shadow over the tour, which began May 13. After all, it was only three years ago that Mr. Bush hailed the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon as a vindication of the kind of democratic transformation of the region that he insisted the invasion of Iraq was designed to launch.

Three years and a brief war between Israel and Hezbollah later, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed group appears more powerful and entrenched than ever, just as its Sunni Islamist ally in the Palestinian Territories, Hamas, remains solidly in control of Gaza and grows in popularity in the West Bank in major part due to the apparent lack of progress in peace talks–formally initiated by Mr. Bush himself at Annapolis last November–between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government.


“The politics on the ground are absolutely miserable,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, speaking to the New York Times May 11. “It’s hard to remember a less auspicious time to pursue Arab-Israeli peacemaking than right now. U.S. power and influence are at low ebb in the region,” he added.

Bush traveled to Israel to help it celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding and then flew on to Saudi Arabia, presumably to appeal–as he did in January when he last traveled to the region–for a major increase in oil production to bring some relief to U.S. consumers (and Republican candidates), and then to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where he will address the World Economic Forum and meet with various Sunni Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah. Apart from Israel, to which Mr. Bush has been by far the most indulgent president in the Jewish state’s history, he is likely to get his warmest–if most anxious–reception when he meets with the assembled Sunni leaders, many of whom are as concerned about Shia Hezbollah’s show of force as is Israel.

Like Mr. Bush himself, not to mention Israel, many of the Sunni leaders see Hezbollah’s victory as another in a series of advances by Iran in its effort to shift the balance of power in the Gulf and the wider region against Washington and its allies there. It is an impression that Mr. Bush, somewhat ironically, is eager to reinforce, if only to revive the dying embers of his hopes for a de facto U.S.-Sunni Arab-Israeli coalition against Tehran, even without a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“To me, it’s the single biggest threat to peace in the Middle East–the Iranian regime,” he told an interviewer from Israel’s TV Channel 10, according to a partial transcript. “Their funding of Hezbollah–look what’s happening in Lebanon now, a young democracy trying to survive … it’s in Israel interest that the Lebanese democracy survives. You need to be concerned about Iran, and you are concerned about Iran, and so are we.”

Indeed, five years after the White House declared “Mission Accomplished” on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, virtually all analysts here agree that almost everything Mr. Bush has done in the region has undermined U.S. standing and influence, even as it enhanced Tehran’s. For example, analysts point to the invasion of Iraq, the ousting of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. rejection of an Iranian offer to negotiate a settlement on all outstanding issues, the U.S. pressing for the total isolation of Hamas after it won U.S.-backed democratic elections in the Palestinian Territories, and Washington’s egging on of the Israelis in their attack on Lebanon and Hezbollah in 2006.

Even in Iraq, recent U.S. attacks on Muqtada al Sadr’s “Mahdi Army,” particularly in Baghdad’s Sadr City, appear to have bolstered the government factions with the closest and most longstanding ties to Iran–the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its Badr Organization, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Da’wa party.

The fact that Tehran itself played a key role in brokering the truces between Mr. Sadr and the government in both Basra in April and in Sadr City over a recent weekend underlines the degree to which Iran is effectively challenging Washington in what neoconservative hawk Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute admits “is the only arena (in the region) where the administration is capable of moving effectively against Tehran.”

And while there is little evidence that Washington played any role in pushing the Lebanese cabinet to order the dismantling of Hezbollah’s communications network at Beirut’s airport–the act that provoked the offensive–its staunch support for the “March 14” Coalition; its deployment of a U.S. naval destroyer off Lebanon’s coast as the political crisis in Beirut intensified in March; its supply of some $400 million in military aid and training to the Lebanese army and security forces (which stayed out of the fighting); and its covert backing (with Saudi Arabia and Jordan) of Sunni militias, in some cases disguised as private-security firms, intended to counter Hezbollah, no doubt contributed to a grave miscalculation by the government.

“These Sunni militiamen proved a complete failure, and America’s proxies in Lebanon barely put up a fight despite their strident anti-Shiite rhetoric,” noted Nir Rosen, a regional expert at the New America Foundation who described Hezbollah’s offensive as “the death throes of the Bush plan for the ‘New Middle East.’”

“Now it is clear that Beirut is firmly in the hands of Hezbollah, and nothing the Americans can do will dislodge or weaken this popular movement, just as they cannot weaken the Sadrists in Iraq or Hamas in Gaza,” he said.

Still, some observers believe Hezbollah’s victory may yet serve the administration’s ends, if only by reminding the Sunni leaders with whom Mr. Bush meets that, in Mr. Gerecht’s words again, “Tehran is on a roll,” and they need the U.S. and even Israel to contain it and roll back its influence.

Indeed, some analysts believe the weekend’s events may add to the gradually growing clamor by hawks in and outside the administration to take military action–if only, for now, limited strikes on weapons factories and training sites inside Iran allegedly used by the Revolutionary Guard to train “terrorists” in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories–to “put Iran in its place.”