Analysis: Rice visit to region was leaked too soon

The delays in sending a senior US official to the region are not merely a scheduling issue.

rice wags finger 298.88 (photo credit: )
rice wags finger 298.88
(photo credit: )
The news about dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region leaked out a little too soon. President George W. Bush, unaware of the open microphone in front him, promised PM Tony Blair that "Condi is going pretty soon," but the administration is still deliberating the exact timing of such a visit. Sources in Washington said Tuesday that Rice will not be leaving before early next week and that the visit will be more of a stopover on her way to Asia than a full-force diplomatic shuttle mission. The delays in sending a senior US official to the region are not merely a scheduling issue. The US does not feel ready to step in quite yet and try to mediate between the fighting sides. Israeli sources said in recent days that they have heard nothing but complete backing from administration officials and that there is no intention at this point to take any action that would stop Israel's military activity. Once Secretary Rice embarks on her mission to the Middle East, it will serve as a sign for Israel that the window of opportunity to act militarily against Hizbullah is closing and that the US believes it is time for diplomacy. But that moment has not arrived yet. "We would love to see a ceasefire," said White House spokesman Tony Snow on Tuesday, but he immediately added that this goal will have to be put off for the meanwhile. "A ceasefire that will leave the status quo ante intact is unacceptable," Snow said. A brief press conference by Secretary Rice herself, accompanied by her Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Aboul Gheit, demonstrated clearly how the administration feels about the calls for a ceasefire: "We all want a cessation of violence, we all want the protection of civilians, but we have to make certain that anything we do will be of lasting value." The Egyptian foreign minister, standing beside Rice, replied immediately, "The ceasefire is imperative - we have to bring it to an end as soon as possible." Rice, insisting on having the last word, stepped back to the podium and added, "We all agree that it should happen as soon as possible, when conditions are conducive to do so," making clear that the time has not yet come or a ceasefire. There is no feeling of urgency conveyed by the US to Israel regarding the need to end or to limit the military operation in Lebanon. The complete backing that President Bush provided Israel is supported also by Congress, which will begin on Wednesday to deliberate resolutions supporting Israel. The American backing does not derive solely from the sympathy to Israel's action and the belief that Hizbullah should be dealt with. The military operation launched by Israel is seen as beneficial for the US on several other fronts: It may lead to the significant weakening of Hizbullah, an outcome that will help the American-backed government of Fuad Saniora in Beirut and strengthen the Lebanese democracy; the conflict in Lebanon also helps the US highlight the danger posed by Iran, not only as a potential nuclear power but also as a sponsor of terrorism; it may have the same affect on Syria, making the international community see Syria as a sponsor of terrorism and thus increasing pressure on the regime of Bashar Assad. The main consideration of the Bush administration at present is how to maintain good relations with the international community, the UN and especially Britain, while putting off any pressure for what the US and Israel would see as a premature ceasefire. The US is not closing the door on the suggestion put forward by Britain and the UN to deploy a multinational force in southern Lebanon, but it is far from endorsing the plan. For the US, time is the name of the game. The main goal of American diplomacy right now is to keep the situation under control for as long as possible and to move in with mediation efforts only when Israel exhausts its military options in Lebanon.