WASHINGTON — To President Bush, the conflict in Lebanon is more than a campaign by Israel to protect its citizens from Hezbollah missiles. Instead, it is "a moment of opportunity" for the United States -- with the most important target not Hezbollah or even neighboring Syria, but distant Iran.
When Bush talks publicly about the 18-day-old campaign, he often makes the point of blaming Iran, one of Hezbollah's main sponsors. Aides say that's a reflection of what he has said in private: that Israel's battle with Hezbollah is merely part of a larger struggle between the U.S. and Iran for influence across the Middle East.
"The stakes are larger than just Lebanon," the president told reporters Friday after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "The root cause of the problem is you've got Hezbollah that is armed and willing to fire rockets into Israel; a Hezbollah ... that I firmly believe is backed by Iran and encouraged by Iran."
He added: "I also believe that Iran would like to exert additional influence in the region. A theocracy would like to spread its influence, using surrogates.... And so, for the sake of long-term stability, we've got to deal with this issue now."
Another U.S. official, who spoke about the Middle East turmoil on condition of anonymity, was more blunt. In Lebanon, the United States and Iran "are conducting a proxy war," he said, with Israel fighting for one side and Hezbollah for the other.
"It is in our interest to see Hezbollah defeated," he said.
The administration's view of the conflict's larger stakes are a major reason why U.S. diplomacy in the crisis has not been devoted to achieving an early cease-fire, as was often the case in earlier clashes between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Instead, the White House has decided that the United States' strategic objective is the same as Israel's -- a decisive defeat for Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran.
Just as the White House hoped its 2003 invasion of Iraq would transform the entire Middle East, Bush and his aides openly voice hopes that an Israeli victory in Lebanon can change the political balance in a much wider area, striking a major blow against Iran and the terrorist groups it has sponsored.
"This is a moment of intense conflict ... yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for broader change in the region," Bush said Friday.
"Instead of having foreign policies based upon trying to create a sense of stability, we have a foreign policy that addresses the root causes of violence and instability," he added.
Or, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it a week earlier, describing the administration's goals in ambitious terms: "What we're seeing here, in a sense, is ... the birth pangs of a new Middle East. And whatever we do, we have to be certain that we're pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one."
For that to occur, Israel still has to win on the battlefield -- and that hasn't happened yet. But administration officials said they were confident that Israel, supported openly or tacitly by the U.S. and other Western nations, would achieve most of its military objectives.
"I don't think that Israel will falter," said the State Department's counter-terrorism chief, Henry A. Crumpton.
But some U.S. officials acknowledge privately that even if Israel succeeds militarily, turning its campaign into a major advance for democracy in Lebanon and other Arab countries will be easier said than done.
At the outset of the Israeli campaign, many non-Shiite Lebanese blamed Hezbollah for starting a needless war; but as Israeli attacks have killed Lebanese civilians and damaged Lebanon's economy, Lebanese politicians of almost all stripes have rallied, at least rhetorically, to Hezbollah's defense.
And just as in Iraq, long-term success in Lebanon will require a long postwar process of building democratic institutions and preventing militias such as Hezbollah from rising again. "This is just the start of a long, complex chapter," Crumpton told reporters.
A list of difficult goals faces Rice and other diplomats who have been charged with bringing the conflict to an end: disarming Hezbollah, whose popularity has been founded on its guerrillas' willingness to stand and fight against Israel; bolstering Lebanon's shaky government and its small, untested army; and assembling a multinational peacekeeping force to provide security for southern Lebanon's ravaged villages and prevent terrorists from crossing Israel's northern border.
Even as they want to see Hezbollah defeated, Bush and his aides also want Lebanon to emerge from the crisis with its democratically elected government stronger. So the U.S. has urged Israel to avoid attacking targets that aren't directly related to the campaign against Hezbollah, advice Israel appears to be following.