Although some conservatives have been fretting that Lebanese rocket fire and Israeli warplanes are making President Bush look helpless, administration officials revealed to TIME today that they have plans to harness the chaos as a “leadership moment” for Bush that could wind up helping his flagging goal of transforming the Middle East.
These officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will leave Sunday night for a week of diplomacy in the region and will go with the modest goal of forming an “umbrella of Arab allies” in opposition to the militant group Hizballah that incited the conflagration by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers.
“She’s not going to come home with a ceasefire, but stronger ties to the Arab world,” an administration official said. “It’s going to allow us to say that America isn’t going to put up with this and we have Arab friends that are against you terrorists. What we want is our Arab allies standing against Hizballah and against Iran, since there is no one who doesn’t think Iran is behind this. We’re going to say to Hizballah and the terrorist groups, ‘This will not stand.’ That is the way to bring real change to the Middle East. If you just have a ceasefire, then soon or later, they go back to fighting.”
Rice was to announce her plans at a briefing this afternoon, officials said. Officials were using the word “umbrella” instead of “coalition” to avoid reminders of the struggling coalition the U.S. led into Iraq. Administration officials said the plans Rice will discuss include security, humanitarian relief and reconstruction in Lebanon. “We do not want Hizballah to get the opportunity to rearm and rebuild,” a Bush aide said.
Another administration official told TIME this morning that the diplomacy “is going remarkably well,” pointing to phone calls the President has had with Middle Eastern leaders, the journey by two envoys to the region, and frequent conversations between National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and his counterparts.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow appeared on network morning shows to urge patience with the administration approach and to point out how active the Bush team has been. “The president never said this would be easy,” Snow said on NBC’s “Today” show, speaking of the wider war on terror. “Everybody who wants this kind of egg timer diplomacy, who thinks, okay, these things ought to happen quickly — you don’t understand human nature. Terrorists are not going to say, ‘You know what? That’s right. I’m going to pick another career.’ Many times, they’re going to fight to the death. We hope that is not the case in Lebanon.”