In Lebanon's Crisis, a Chance for U.S. to Broaden the Stakes

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2006

ROME, July 25 -- In trying to negotiate an end to the latest Middle East conflict, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears to see the solution through a broader prism that redefines its stakes. The real issues, U.S. officials say, are not simply the hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah but far wider questions of Lebanon's sovereignty and what the administration sees as an existential battle between forces aligned for and against democracy in the region.

And in that sense, say diplomats traveling with Rice, the administration sees opportunity in the turmoil.

"If this Lebanon emerges stronger from this crisis, then the enemies of peace and stability in the area will be dealt a big defeat. In many ways, for the region, Lebanon is a polyglot country that represents the hopes of many," C. David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, told reporters traveling with Rice from Jerusalem to Rome.

"The new Middle East is not going to be built every single day with a big victory in one place or another," he added. "It's got to be done with a steady effort. This is an opportunity now in the midst of this crisis to see freedom strengthened in Lebanon. And I expect that that can occur if we get the responsible voices prevailing over the irresponsible ones."

The Rice delegation also hinted that it was exploring actions against outside governments subverting Lebanon's sovereignty, Welch said. The United States strongly believes that Iran in particular facilitated and encouraged the July 12 Hezbollah cross-border raid that seized two Israeli soldiers and sparked the crisis. The administration also holds Syria responsible for abetting the radical Shiite Muslim group.

"There are also other measures that also might be taken that could deal with those countries who don't have the same sense of responsibility about the future of Lebanon," Welch said.

Officials traveling with Rice say their broader perspective is the basis for the framework the secretary of state is now trying to broker with Lebanon, Israel, the Arab world and other players.

The administration is using these loftier causes to try to shift the focus from Israel's punishing and controversial bombardment of Lebanon to the question of freedom for the region. "It is time for a new Middle East," Rice said in Jerusalem.

In Rome, Rice met with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and European Union foreign affairs chief Javier Solana ahead of an international conference on Lebanon Wednesday.

A broad agreement about regional democracy may be a long way off, U.S. officials say. "We go out there, and we have some ideas about how to work this," Welch told reporters. "In some cases we want to put those ideas forward, in others we want to test them. In some cases we're trying others' ideas and vice versa."

Despite obstacles in forming an international force more effective than the U.N. observers deployed in southern Lebanon since 1978, U.S. officials say it will happen.

"You will hear about the impossibility of deploying an international force almost until the day it is deployed," said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. U.S. officials say the biggest issue may be whether the new force would deploy before or after the disarming of Hezbollah, which has vowed not to give up its weapons. The force is "not going to shoot their way in," the official said.

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