Amid an intensifying clamor for an end to Israeli-Hizbullah fighting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday she was "willing and ready" to return to the Mideast to work on a cease-fire.
As countries attending a conference on Asian issues voiced concerns about violence now raging into a third week, Rice decided to leave the sessions Friday evening instead of Saturday. She has not yet said where she is going, though it was widely expected she would return to the Middle East.
Rice repeated her position that the United States wanted to work for a sustainable peace plan and smooth the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the people of Lebanon. As she did so, President George W. Bush's top spokesman said it was time for the administration to "push back" against criticism of the US role.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, press secretary Tony Snow disputed what he said was a "presumption" in some quarters that the US diplomatic prescription "wasn't a success unless she [Rice] had a cease-fire.
"In other words, you measure by a piece of paper, rather than by the ongoing efforts," Snow said.
He said that US diplomats in the region were working toward a UN resolution, US diplomats in Europe are talking about troop contributions and the United States also is helping organize humanitarian aid.
"What she has said is, 'What on earth is the good of having another empty-handed cease-fire in the Middle East?'" Snow said. "What is the purpose of having something that is not enforceable at this juncture, and is not realistic?"
Snow also said there were ongoing talks about a troop contribution effort with US allies. He said State Department counselor Philip Zelikow was working with European Union policy chief Javier Solana's staff in Brussels, and that there also will be UN consultations over the weekend, on troop contributions when a cease-fire is possible, to provide some sort of troop presence to supplement the Lebanese armed forces.
"The Lebanese armed forces should be the principle means for creating peace in Lebanon, and we hope to be able to give them the capability and capacity to do so," he said.
Even as Rice and representatives of the nations attending the conference were preoccupied with what is happening in the Middle East, they also faced another festering diplomatic problem with North Korea's determination to develop its nuclear weapons program.
Before flying to Malaysia for the long-scheduled ASEAN regional forum, Rice spent three days traveling to Beirut, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Rome, defending the administration's insistence that a cease-fire on the Lebanon-Israeli border must be sustainable.
The position isolated her from nearly all US allies, who are seeking a quick end to the fighting that has cost millions of dollars and hundreds of lives. They want to stop the fighting before engaging in complex negotiations about disarming Hizbullah, strengthening Lebanon's central government and other difficult issues.
Aboard her plane en route to Asia, Rice tried to downplay expectations of a quick fix in Lebanon or the Middle East.
"I am a student of history, so perhaps I have a little bit more patience with the enormous change in the international system and the complete shifting of tectonic plates, and I don't expect it to happen in a few days or even a year," she said.