The Message Behind Rice's Surprise Visit to Beirut

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Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she arrives at the Government House in Beirut Monday

Ever since hostilities between Israel and Hizballah ignited July 12, President Bush and his advisors have refused to consider growing international pressure to back an immediate ceasefire. They painted the word ceasefire as defeatist and short-sighted, and they coined their own term of art, "cessation of violence," to mean a future without an armed Hizballah entrenched in southern Lebanon.

Today, that message took on a notably different focus, one of concern for the future of Lebanon. Short-term, the Bush Administration is worried about a growing humanitarian crisis. Long-term, it fears that unchecked damage done to Lebanon could create a failed state that would pose even more of a threat to Israel.

That was the emphasis of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's surprise stop in Beirut today, as she sought to make a dramatic show of support for Lebanese leaders staggering under the Israeli bombardment and siege. Rice had planned to fly to Jerusalem, but she diverted to Cyprus at about noon local time, boarded a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter manned by the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit 24, the same unit that was the target of the Marine barracks bombing in 1983. Rice's chopper, armed with tripod-mounted machine guns, landed on U.S. embassy grounds in Beirut at about 1 p.m. local time. She was driven in an armored SUV to the office of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Afterwards, another fast, bumpy ride took her to the home of the speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri, a Shi'a leader. Outside Berri's residential office, Rice said, "I'm deeply concerned about the Lebanese people and what they are enduring. I'm concerned about the humanitarian situation. President Bush wanted me to make this the first stop."

Rice's appearance here in Beirut was aimed as much to send a signal to Israel as one to Lebanon. Although Rice has never wavered from the Administration's position that the U.S. supports Israel's right to defend itself, her rhetoric has taken on a cooler edge as Israel has continued to bombard Lebanon's infrastructure and has blockaded land and sea routes into the country.

Now there is concern among U.S. officials that the situation in Lebanon will further inflame anger toward the U.S. in the Arab world, coming on top of the chaos and violence in Iraq. These officials say that the loss of goodwill because of Iraq's instability, coupled with the unstinting support for Israel, have moved many Arabs to admire Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah as a David confronting a Western Goliath. This movement in Arab popular opinion, American officials say, has not been lost on the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, who are now said to be deeply concerned about the growing opposition movement fired with a combustible mix of extremist religion, rabid nationalism and class and sectarian divisions.

Rice's immediate mission is to discuss with Lebanese, European and moderate Arab leaders, as well as Israeli officials, the creation of a multinational force to hold a "buffer zone" in southern Lebanon. But some U.S. officials acknowledge that disarming Hizballah is not going to be done soon or maybe ever. It is one thing to take out rocket launcher emplacements. It is another to stop the inflow of new fighters. Hizballah's recruiting posters are taken from the stream of horrific images showing constantly on cable news around the world.

The Bush Administration's message went through a dramatic evolution over the weekend. Last Friday, describing her upcoming mission to the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said dismissively, "I can guarantee you, if you simply look for a ceasefire that acknowledges and freezes the status quo ante, we will be back here in six months again or in five months or in nine months or in a year, trying to get another ceasefire because HIzballah will have decided yet again to try and to use southern Lebanon as a sanctuary to fire against Israel."

But on Sunday, as Rice's U.S. Air Force 757 headed for the Middle East, she told reporters, "We believe that a ceasefire is urgent."

So what changed? Officially nothing, most notably the U.S. position. Rice said that her own idea of a ceasefire involved "a cessation of hostilities that is going to last... The south [of Lebanon] can't be a kind of haven for [Hizballah] to launch attacks."

But every word in diplomacy is carefully chosen, so there may be more to Rice's surprising statement than anyone will admit. Perhaps Rice's willingness to talk about ceasefire had to do with the Sunday afternoon meeting between President Bush, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Rice and Prince Saud Al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister; Prince Bandar, the regime's top national security official; and Prince Turki, the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. The trio delivered a letter from Saudi King Abdullah to Bush. And though its content has not been made public, the Saudi government has made no secret of its alarm at Israel's relentless bombardment of Lebanon and at the burgeoning humanitarian crisis in Lebanon and Gaza. Still, the Saudis are expected to join delegations from Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon in Rome, as well as European envoys and World Bank officials, who will help come up with a reconstruction plan for Lebanon.

Rice seems well aware that the death and destruction wreaked by the Israeli bombardment and blockade of Lebanon is causing great anguish in the Arab world — and that U.S. support for Israel is endangering U.S. relations with moderate Arab leaders. So she is making a point of claiming that the U.S. hasn't sat by passively as the region's misery deepens.

"Most of my conversations with the Israelis in recent hours have been about humanitarian assistance," she said shortly after her airplane took off. "We've been working really hard — with the Israelis, with the Lebanese, with others on the humanitarian situation — in trying to establish corridors in and out of Lebanon, as well as corridors within Lebanon that might make it possible to get humanitarian assistance to the Lebanese people. And that work is going to continue while I'm here."

When she meets with Israeli officials, Rice will have another message: "We fully understand the need of Israel to defend itself," she said. "We also understand that the means of its defense will be to have a strong and sovereign Lebanese government on its border that is democratic and friendly to Israel in the long run." So, she said, the U.S. wants Israel "to use restraint and to be concerned about civilian populations, innocent civilians and civilian infrastructure but also to be concerned about the effects on the Siniora government."

Translation: it's not in Israel's interest to topple the fledgling Lebanese government and transform the country into a failed state. If that happens, Hizballah and other militant groups will have even more free rein to make trouble, with Iran and Syria able to exploit the chaos for their own ends.

"I'm fully prepared to return to the region if that would be necessary and helpful," Rice said while traveling to the region Sunday night. But that's a big if, and her schedule is open-ended for a reason. Nobody knows for sure whether anything the U.S. does over the next week can make much difference at all.