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While we were on our way to Germany, Hezbollah terrorists in southern Lebanon launched a raid across the Israeli border, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, and touched off another foreign policy crisis. Israel responded by attacking Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon and bombing the Beirut Airport, a transit point for weapons. Hezbollah retaliated by lobbing rockets at Israeli towns, killing or wounding hundreds of civilians.

Like Hamas, Hezbollah had a legitimate political party and a terrorist wing armed and funded by Iran and supported by Syria. Hezbollah was behind the bombing of the American Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, the murder of a U.S. Navy diver aboard a hijacked TWA flight in 1985, the attacks on the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, and the bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

Now Hezbollah was taking on Israel directly. All the G-8 leaders at the summit had the same initial reaction: Hezbollah had instigated the conflict, and Israel had a right to defend itself. We issued a joint statement that read, “These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict.”

The Israelis had a chance to deliver a major blow against Hezbollah and their sponsors in Iran and Syria. Unfortunately, they mishandled their opportunity. The Israeli bombing campaign struck targets of questionable military value, including sites in northern Lebanon far from Hezbollah’s base. The damage was broadcast on television for all to see. To compound matters, Prime Minister Olmert announced that Syria would not be a target. I thought it was a mistake. Removing the threat of retaliation let Syria off the hook and emboldened them to continue their support for Hezbollah.

As the violence continued into its second week, many of the G-8 leaders who started out supportive of Israel called for a ceasefire. I didn’t join. A ceasefire might provide short-term relief, but it wouldn’t resolve the root cause of the conflict. If a well-armed Hezbollah continued to threaten Israel from southern Lebanon, it would be only a matter of time before the fighting flared again. I wanted to buy time for Israel to weaken Hezbollah’s forces. I also wanted to send a message to Iran and Syria: They would not be allowed to use terrorist organizations as proxy armies to attack democracies with impunity.

Unfortunately, Israel made matters worse. In the third week of the conflict, Israeli bombers destroyed an apartment complex in the Lebanese city of Qana. Twenty-eight civilians were killed, more than half of them children. Prime Minister Siniora was furious. Arab leaders viciously condemned the bombing, the carnage of which played around the clock on Middle Eastern TV. I started to worry that Israel’s offensive might topple Prime Minister Siniora’s democratic government.

I called a National Security Council meeting to discuss our strategy. The disagreement within the team was heated. “We need to let the Israelis finish off Hezbollah,” Dick Cheney said. “If you do that,” Condi replied, “America will be dead in the Middle East.” She recommended we seek a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire and deploying a multinational peacekeeping force.

Neither choice was ideal. In the short run, I wanted to see Hezbollah and their backers badly damaged. In the long run, our strategy was to isolate Iran and Syria as a way to reduce their influence and encourage change from within. If America continued to back the Israeli offensive, we would have to veto one UN resolution after the next. Ultimately, instead of isolating Iran and Syria, we would isolate ourselves.

I decided that the long-run benefits of keeping the pressure on Syria and Iran outweighed the short-run gains of striking further blows against Hezbollah. I sent Condi to the UN, where she negotiated Resolution 1701, which called for an immediate end to the violence, the disarmament of Hezbollah and other militias in Lebanon, an embargo on weapons shipments, and the deployment of a robust international security force to southern Lebanon. The Lebanese government, Hezbollah, and Israel all accepted the resolution. The ceasefire took effect on the morning of August 14.

Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon was another defining moment in the ideological struggle. While it remains fragile and still faces pressure from Syria, Lebanon’s young democracy emerged stronger for having endured the test. The result for Israel was mixed. Its military campaign weakened Hezbollah and helped secure its border. At the same time, the Israelis’ shaky military performance cost them international credibility.

As the instigators of the conflict, Hezbollah—along with Syria and Iran—bore responsibility for the bloodshed. The Lebanese people knew it. In the most telling analysis of the war, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah apologized to the Lebanese people two weeks after the ceasefire. “Had we known that the capture of the soldiers would have led to this,” he said, “we would definitely not have done it.”

When Condi took her first trip to Europe as secretary of state in early 2005, she told me she expected our disagreements over Iraq to be the main issue. A week later, she reported back with a surprising message from the allies she’d met. “They’re not talking about Iraq,” she said. “They’re all worried about Iran.”

By the time I took office, the theocratic regime in Iran had presented a challenge to American presidents for more than twenty years. Governed by radical clerics who seized power in the 1979 revolution, Iran was one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terror. At the same time, Iran was a relatively modern society with a budding freedom movement.

In August 2002, an Iranian opposition group came forward with evidence that the regime was building a covert uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz, along with a secret heavy water production plant in Arak—two telltale signs of a nuclear weapons program. The Iranians acknowledged the enrichment but claimed it was for electricity production only. If that was true, why was the regime hiding it? And why did Iran need to enrich uranium when it didn’t have an operable nuclear power plant? All of a sudden, there weren’t so many complaints about including Iran in the axis of evil.

In October 2003, seven months after we removed Saddam Hussein from power, Iran pledged to suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing. In return, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France agreed to provide financial and diplomatic benefits, such as technology and trade cooperation. The Europeans had done their part, and we had done ours. The agreement was a positive step toward our ultimate goal of stopping Iranian enrichment and preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

In June 2005, everything changed. Iran held a presidential election. The process was suspicious, to say the least. The Council of Guardians, a handful of senior Islamic clerics, decided who was on the ballot. The clerics used the Basij Corps, a militia-like unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, to manage turnout and influence the vote. Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. Not surprisingly, he had strong support from the Basij.

Ahmadinejad steered Iran in an aggressive new direction. The regime became more repressive at home, more belligerent in Iraq, and more proactive in destabilizing Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, and Afghanistan. Ahmadinejad called Israel “a stinking corpse” that should be “wiped off the map.” He dismissed the Holocaust as a “myth.” He used a United Nations speech to predict that the hidden imam would reappear to save the world. I started to worry we were dealing with more than just a dangerous leader. This guy could be nuts.

As one of his first acts, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran would resume uranium conversion. He claimed it was part of Iran’s civilian nuclear power program, but the world recognized the move as a step toward enrichment for a weapon. Vladimir Putin—with my support—offered to provide fuel enriched in Russia for Iran’s civilian reactors, once it built some, so that Iran would not need its own enrichment facilities. Ahmadinejad rejected the proposal. The Europeans also offered to support an Iranian civilian nuclear program in exchange for halting its suspect nuclear activities. Ahmadinejad rejected that, too. There was only one logical explanation: Iran was enriching uranium to use in a bomb.

I faced a major decision point. America could not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. The theocratic regime would be able to dominate the Middle East, blackmail the world, pass nuclear weapons technology to its terrorist proxies, or use the bomb against Israel. I thought about the problem in terms of two ticking clocks. One measured Iran’s progress toward the bomb; the other tracked the ability of the reformers to instigate change. My objective was to slow the first clock and speed the second.

I had three options to consider. Some in Washington suggested that America should negotiate directly with Iran. I believed talking to Ahmadinejad would legitimize him and his views and dispirit Iran’s freedom movement, slowing the change clock. I also doubted that America could make much progress in one-on-one talks with the regime. Bilateral negotiations with a tyrant rarely turn out well for a democracy. Because they are subjected to little accountability, totalitarian regimes face no pressure to honor their word. They are free to break agreements and then make new demands. A democracy has a choice: give in or provoke a confrontation.

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