Rice's high-wire act

SECRETARY OF STATE CONDOLEEZZA RICE turned in a nice feat of diplomatic symbolism Monday when she kicked off her tour of the Middle East with a surprise helicopter visit to bombed-out Beirut. The demonstration of American empathy toward the shattered Lebanese people was an important gesture, and the military confidence displayed by the high-wire chopper act was impressive.

But symbolism can cut many ways. Rice showed once again that though the United States may be skilled enough to fly into treacherous Middle East hot spots, getting out with a workable and lasting peace deal is another skill entirely.

By all accounts, the secretary's meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was cordial enough, but the substance of her message was likely limited to: "We feel your pain, but not enough to make it stop right away." Small wonder Rice took as long as she did to get to the region.

Still, the governments of both George W. Bush and Israel's Ehud Olmert are warming to the idea of an international force to occupy the southern strip of Lebanon, which was effectively ceded to Hezbollah after Israel pulled out in 2000. Rice should make this a priority. As the White House has made clear (including to the Saudi foreign minister on Sunday), the U.S. and moderate Arab governments in the region should not settle for a cease-fire that merely turns the clock back a few weeks. International forces and Siniora's government in Beirut -- which emerged from the hopes of the "cedar revolution" that drove Syrian troops out of the country last year -- must fill the void near the border with Israel and finish the job that was started by the Israelis of disarming Hezbollah.

A cease-fire is urgently needed to stop the heartbreaking bloodshed among innocent civilians, but one reached at any cost would be counterproductive. The administration, for instance, is justified in rebuffing Syria for now. After Lebanon finally rid itself of Syrian occupiers last year, it would be a huge step backward to invite Syria to the negotiating table as a stakeholder in Lebanon's future. The only question left to be negotiated among Lebanon, Israel, the U.S. and interested parties across the Arab world and Europe is how -- not whether -- to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 requiring the disarmament of Hezbollah. There is no role for Damascus in these talks.

For its part, Israel also will have to adjust its strategy soon if there is to be any hope for a free and peaceful Lebanon. The pounding of Lebanon may be successfully degrading Hezbollah's capabilities, but it's also radicalizing future terrorism recruits and making it increasingly difficult for future Lebanese governments to cooperate with Israel. Jerusalem's delicate tightrope lies in its need to destroy the cancer (Hezbollah) without killing the patient (Lebanon). Trouble is, as was proved by Israel's last invasion of Lebanon a quarter of a century ago, military action alone tends to be both too little and too much.

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