Condoleezza Rice is portraying her Middle East tour this week as an opportunity to â€œrally moderate forces and moderate voicesâ€ following Israelâ€™s summer war on Lebanon and ahead of looming confrontation with Iran. But she has a lot of ground to make up and little in the way of help.
For many Arabs, the US secretary of state is returning to the scene of a crime. The Bush administrationâ€™s refusal to back an immediate ceasefire in Israelâ€™s conflict with Hizbullah, which ultimately lasted 34 days and inflicted enormous damage on Lebanon, has further reduced its leverage on key issues. A low point came when Fuad Sinoria, Lebanonâ€™s pro-western PM and the sort of â€œmoderateâ€ the US wants to engage, said Rice was not welcome in Beirut. The free rein given to Israel by Washington did not produce the intended results. As Robert Malley, a former senior Clinton administration official, has noted, Hizbullah emerged with its standing on the Arab street enhanced while that of Israelâ€™s once feared military and its political leadership was considerably dented. Nor had Riceâ€™s â€œutterly incomprehensibleâ€ hands-off approach created the lasting stability that was its ostensible justification, he told the New York Review.
A new war against Hizbullah in which Israel sought to reassert its superiority was more likely than not, Malley suggested, and the UNâ€™s reinforced but still largely toothless peacekeepers were in no position to stop it. â€œThe conflict is no longer about achieving a specific objective ... It is about establishing oneâ€™s power of deterrence, defining the rules of the game, showing who is boss.â€ That, in theory, is also Riceâ€™s pan-regional objective, to be achieved by diplomatic rather than military means. But a lack of new ideas or a clear plan continues to characterise her approach to other key issues.
Speaking in Jeddah, Rice urged a halt to fighting between Hamas and Fatah factions in Gaza. But she made plain there would be no let-up in the US-directed boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority which is stoking those tensions. And while paying lip service to a two-state solution, she did not diverge one inch from the administrationâ€™s line that countering extremism in Iran and Iraq, and among Al Qaeda and like-minded jihadists, was Washingtonâ€™s top priority. That is more likely to dismay than rally ministers from the eight â€œmoderateâ€ Arab governments who met her in Cairo later on October 3. But Rice, conscious of neo-con opposition at home to any pressure for Israeli concessions and aware that Israelâ€™s PM, Ehud Olmert, is in no shape politically to reopen peace talks, offered no concrete response.
Impatience with Riceâ€™s do-nothing policy is growing. Amid much soft talk of promoting moderation, Rice is carrying one tough message of her own. To Sunni Arab rulers worried by Shia Iranâ€™s nuclear and regional ambitions and shamed by Hizbullahâ€™s perceived prowess, the hard word from Washington is: back us in the coming fight with Iran. Rice may have no answers to old conflicts. But she is a willing cheerleader for new ones. â€” The Guardian