Rice Faces Diplomatic Test in the Middle East

Times Staff Writer

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice departs for the Middle East today facing one of the sternest challenges of her diplomatic career.

For decades, it has been an unwritten rule of U.S. diplomacy that secretaries of State should not risk their reputations by heading into a Mideast war zone without reasonable assurance that they can emerge with a deal.

In this case, in addition to the fighting in Lebanon, the Bush administration is struggling to meet the tests of two other regional hotspots, Iraq and Iran. While trying to make progress on Lebanon, it can’t afford to appear ineffective or to alienate regional allies by giving the impression that Rice is buying time for continued Israeli military operations.


Rice appears to be hoping it will be sufficient to show determination and make small steps toward a deal, analysts say. “I know there are no answers that are easy, nor are there any quick fixes,” she said Friday in announcing the trip.

Jon Alterman, director of Middle East Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that since the time of Henry Kissinger, Middle East diplomacy has always been the most important measure of a secretary of State’s career. “And more people have failed than succeeded,” he said.

To Rice’s advantage, there is basic agreement among key allies that the world community needs to assert more control over Lebanon to suppress Hezbollah and strengthen the fragile Lebanese government. Also working in her favor is that Congress and American public opinion strongly support the administration’s decision to allow Israel full latitude to deal with Hezbollah.

Bush strongly criticized Hezbollah and also singled out its patrons, Syria and Iran, in his weekly radio address Saturday. He said Hezbollah had defied the world by maintaining armed units in southern Lebanon and attacking Israel. Rice “will make it clear that resolving the crisis demands confronting the terrorist group that launched the attacks and the nations that support it,” he said.

Yet there remains great uncertainty about how the newly organized “Lebanon core group” of allies could assert control over one of the most divided and unruly countries in a chaotic region.

On Saturday, British Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells, on a visit to Beirut, echoed sentiments heard in some European capitals that Israel has been using disproportionate force. In contrast to Prime Minister Tony Blair, Howells criticized Israel for killing civilians and said he hoped the Bush administration understood the damage being inflicted on Lebanon.

“The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people -- these have not been surgical strikes,” Howells told reporters. “And it’s very difficult, I think, to understand the kind of military tactics that have been used. If they’re chasing Hezbollah, then go for Hezbollah. You don’t go for the entire Lebanese nation.”

Rice made it clear Friday that the Bush administration would not send U.S. troops to Lebanon, thus avoiding a step that many Arabs would find provocative.

Although some European countries have indicated a willingness to provide soldiers, it is far from clear that they and other allies could field and support a force strong enough to deal with Hezbollah. Also unanswered is whether this force would enter Lebanon only after a cease-fire, and whether it would seek to disarm the militant group, as Israel wants.

Israeli officials believe they have destroyed about half of Hezbollah’s arms and infrastructure. But group members probably would continue fighting with improvised explosives and suicide bombs.

Rice said that though all were agreed that the force must be “robust,” its precise mandate must be hashed out first with the Lebanese and Israelis, then with the Europeans, who probably would carry the greatest burden.

Israel has made it clear that it wants more time to strike at Hezbollah before considering a cease-fire. Israeli observers dismissed the likelihood of Rice’s visit resulting in a truce.

“This isn’t a process of negotiation that can result in a cease-fire, since among other things, the prime minister’s office is not interested in a negotiation that will lead to one,” said Rina Matzliah, the diplomatic affairs reporter for Israel’s Channel 2. “No one is expecting a quick resolution.”

Israel’s diplomatic stance is also likely to be colored by domestic political considerations, Israeli analysts said. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has experienced a surge in popularity. But Israel’s leaders might soon find themselves caught between diplomatic pressure and the public’s desire to see the country’s military deal Hezbollah a decisive blow.

“The more effective the army’s activity, the longer is the time window granted by the public,” said Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit. “But at the same time, the more effective the army’s activity, the narrower the window granted Israel by the international community.”

Some Israeli officials believe an international force would be able to do the job in Lebanon if it was as well-armed and capable as the NATO force deployed in Kosovo after the 1999 war. Many outside observers are doubtful.

“These organizations can be effective if there’s a peace to keep, but not if they have to make peace,” Alterman said. “There’s no such thing as peace-making troops.”

Nathan Brown, a specialist on Arab politics at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Washington and its allies couldn’t start working on concrete plans for peacekeeping until Hezbollah either agreed to a truce or was destroyed, neither of which seemed to be at hand.

The Bush administration and its allies also face big issues regarding Lebanon’s political structure. Rice said that Hezbollah, because of its attacks on Israel, had disqualified itself from any future role in the Lebanese government. However, they would have to find a way to give Shiite Muslims, Lebanon’s largest group, a voice in government.

Rice is not planning to meet leaders of Syria or Hezbollah on this trip. The Syrians, who have strong influence over Hezbollah, have been contacted by many European and Arab countries and do not need a direct dialogue with the Americans, she said.

Others disagree strongly. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Carter, said last week at a dinner sponsored by the New America Foundation that if Rice doesn’t meet with leaders the administration does not approve of, her trip would amount to “sitting in front of a mirror, talking to herself.”

“That’s not diplomacy,” Brzezinski said.

Rice also might face difficulties talking to U.S. allies in the region. Three major Arab countries -- Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- are important participants in the new effort to make peace.

But many of their citizens are upset with the Israeli military action in Lebanon, and it could be increasingly difficult for them to take part in the peace talks if the suffering in Lebanon continues.

On Friday, some diplomats close to the talks said the Egyptian government, worried about reaction, had declined to accept a visit from Rice. Egyptian officials denied a visit was ever planned.

Brown, of Carnegie, said Rice ran a risk if it appeared that her trip was intended to make only small decisions to buy time while the fighting continued. “It could suggest that the administration is really just impotent, or duplicitous, and trying to find a cover for continued Israeli military action,” he said.

Times staff writer Laura King in Jerusalem contributed to this report.