POLITICS
06/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain Takes Harder Line On Hezbollah Than Bush

Visiting Beirut on Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lent her personal support to the new power-sharing agreement reached between the country's U.S.-supported prime minister and the armed group Hezbollah. As the AP noted, "Hezbollah's ascendancy is a bitter pill for the U.S.," given that Washington has pumped millions of military aid dollars into the country in the past couple of years with the explicit purpose of preventing the current state of affairs, in which the Iran-backed Shiite party is poised to obtain effective veto power over government decisions in the country's next cabinet.

But in a show of "reality-based" thinking, the Bush administration is apparently ready to concede a role for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and consign its onetime policy druthers to the ash heap of history. What's more, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz newspaper and the Arabic-language Al Hayat, the Bush administration is preparing to encourage Israel to pull out of the disputed Shebaa Farms territory, a small parcel of land captured during the 1967 war that sits near the top of Hezbollah's bill of complaint against Israel.

Taken together, the policy of acknowledging Hezbollah's internal political role in Lebanon and the desire to encourage Israel's withdrawal from Shebaa Farms marks a sharp turn for the Bush administration. In 2005, U.S. officials were lecturing on the need to implement UN Resolution 1559 -- which laid out a roadmap to both disarm Hezbollah and put Syrian suspects on trial for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Instead, we now hear from Secretary Rice the true enough admission that "obviously in any compromise there are compromises."

This new pivot toward a realist foreign policy in Lebanon also represents a difference in both style and substance with John McCain, though not the type of "moderate" difference his presidential campaign is eager to promote. Based on McCain's recent speech to the Israeli American Public Affairs Committee, McCain would appear to prefer a more hawkish stand on Hezbollah than the Bush administration currently does. Specifically, in that speech, McCain said:

"The international community needs to more fully empower our allies in Lebanon - not only with military aid but also with the resources to undermine Hezbollah's appeal: better schools, hospitals, roads and power generation, and the like. We simply cannot afford to cede Lebanon's future to Syria and Iran."

Also, speaking during a fact-finding trip to Jerusalem in March, McCain raised the stakes on the matter of Hezbollah's status, saying "if [they] succeed here, they are going to succeed everywhere." Any Israeli withdrawal from Shebaa Farms would likely be seen as a boon for Hezbollah's "resistance" strategy, just as Israel's withdrawal from the majority of southern Lebanon in 2000 was seen as a victory for the group.

But ceding some portion of Lebanon's future to Iran is precisely what the Bush administration is now ready to do when it welcomes the power sharing relationship between Hezbollah and Lebanon's government, or when it is reported to be urging an Israeli withdrawal from captured territory. To be sure, it must be acknowledged that the campaign trail often permits less nuance than the path of governing. But just as when the question of whether or not to diplomatically engage Iran is brought front and center, it's important to note that no matter the power of the office of the president, sometimes its occupant must humbly accept the state of world affairs as it exists and move forward.

Phone calls and an email to the McCain campaign seeking to clarify its position on Secretary Rice's remarks and the status of any Israeli withdrawal from Shebaa Farms were not immediately returned.