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Why US looks to others in Mideast crisis

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As attacks escalate between Israel and its militant nemesis Hizbullah, threatening the stability of Lebanon, the United States finds itself in a weaker position than in the past to act as calming agent.

The diplomatic void does not bode well for a quick resolution of the crisis, even if a United Nations delegation in the region steps into the breach. The Group of Eight leaders, meeting here outside St. Petersburg, Sunday threw their collective support behind that mission trying to end the flare-up in the region.

The lack of a US initiative in a region of traditional influence suggests the White Hose sees little to be gained from intervention at this time, but it also suggests how inattention to the region has left the US with few options.

The reasons the US is watching this crisis from the sidelines are many: The Bush administration has been preoccupied with Iraq, it does not have diplomatic ties with the Middle Eastern countries that matter in this escalation, and it has been unwilling to pressure Israel to avoid military response when Tel Aviv's security is threatened. The US position represents a change from earlier days – such as the administration of the first President Bush, who enlisted diplomats like James Baker and Brent Skowcroft to ease tensions – when America brought pressure to bear on all parties, including Israel, to slam the Pandora's box back shut.

"The US has very little leverage over the situation, and all that does is underline that the US is weak and has lost the kind of influence it once had in the region," says Arthur Hughes, former director general of the Israel-Egypt multinational force and now a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "It's frightening to our partners, like Japan and Europe because, as they see it, the only thing worse than a US that is too strong is a US that is too weak."

At the G-8 meeting at a former retreat of Russian czars on the Gulf of Finland, the unanimous statement in response to the latest conflict read: "We offer our full support for the UN Secretary General's mission presently in the region." The mission's goal, said French President Jacques Chirac, is "looking for a lasting cease-fire."

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