Small but still significant signs of change are occurring in the US discussion of the war on Lebanon.
Polls are showing that the US public is confused. While it is a given that the public supports Israel, a solid majority now say that they believe "Israel has gone too far" in its assault on Lebanon. A majority also expresses deep concern that the continuing conflict could lead to a wider war.
Not surprisingly, almost two-thirds disapprove of the way the Administration is handling the situation, reflecting the public's dissatisfaction with Bush's handling of Iraq and foreign affairs, in general. As a result, a plurality of Americans are shy about the US playing a more active role in resolving the conflict in Lebanon.
There are even changes in Congress, which only two weeks ago passed near unanimous resolutions giving full support to Israel, with no concern for the damage being done to Lebanon and its people. Now some influential members are speaking out. Some have made dramatic and far-reaching statements about Lebanon and US policy in the Middle East, while others have made less dramatic, but still important calls for an immediate cease fire, expressing concern for the growing numbers of Lebanese civilians killed, and the damage to the country's infrastructure.
Most notable in this regard was the striking speech delivered last week by Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), one of the most thoughtful analysts of America's Middle East policy. Some of his comments deserve to be cited at length.
Hagel opened his remarks with the following appeal:
"Mr. President, The Middle East is a region in crisis. After three weeks of escalating and continuing violence, the potential for wider regional conflict becomes more real each day. The hatred in the Middle East is being driven deeper and deeper into the fabric of the region...which will make any lasting and sustained peace effort very difficult to achieve. How do we realistically believe that a continuation of the systematic destruction of an American friend, the country and people of Lebanon, is going to enhance America's image and give us the trust and credibility to lead a lasting and sustained peace effort in the Middle East? The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now. President Bush must call for an immediate cease fire. This madness must stop."
Hagel then added:
"Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one. But, it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice...Extended military action is tearing Lebanon apart, killing innocent civilians, destroying its economy and infrastructure, creating a humanitarian disaster, further weakening Lebanon's fragile democratic government, strengthening popular Muslim and Arab support for Hezbollah, and deepening hatred of Israel across the Middle East...The war against Hezbollah and Hamas will not be won on the battlefield."
Reflecting this changing mood, several senators, including Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), issued strong statements calling for an immediate ceasefire. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and John E. Sununu (R-NH) sponsored a resolution urging the Administration to grant "temporary protected status" to Lebanese citizens in the US and the Senate passed, by unanimous consent, a new resolution on Lebanon, correcting its previous one-sided effort.
This new resolution was sponsored by Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) and cosponsored by Senators Sununu, Chafee, Stabenow, Carl Levin (D-MI), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and Russ Feingold (D-WI).
Responding to a letter signed by over one hundred Arab American constituents, Dodd explained why he was undertaking the effort:
"While every nation has a right and duty to defend its citizens against acts of terrorism, maximum efforts must also be made to protect against civilian casualties...The sad result of the current crisis is that approximately 700,000 people have been displaced from their homes, and more than 400 innocent Lebanese have paid the ultimate price for Hezbollah's aggression...This reality is what prompted me more than a week ago to call for a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah."
While repeating some of the provisions of the first Senate bill, it is significant that the Dodd effort adds language that calls for a cessation of hostilities, an international donors conference, and new support for the Lebanese government.
On the House side, as well, there are signs of change. A group of 18 Congresspersons authored a letter to President Bush urging him to call for an immediate ceasefire and expressing their concern for the suffering of the Lebanese people.
Congressman John Murtha (D-PA), one of the most respected members of the Congress, issued a personal call for a ceasefire as did Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). In a strong letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Van Hollen urged her "to call for an immediate ceasefire." The Israeli actions, he noted, "have gone beyond the destruction of Hizbollah's military assets. It has caused huge damage to Lebanon's civilian infrastructure, resulted in large loss of civilian life, and produced 750,000 refugees."
This is only the beginning. We're not out of the woods yet, but it is a hopeful sign that the suffering of the past several weeks has not gone unnoticed.