TOPICS : Rice heads east but may find few allies

Condoleezza Rice is portraying her Middle East tour this week as an opportunity to “rally moderate forces and moderate voices” following Israel’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 administration’s refusal to back an immediate ceasefire in Israel’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, Lebanon’s pro-western PM and the sort of “moderate” 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 Israel’s once feared military and its political leadership was considerably dented. Nor had Rice’s “utterly incomprehensible” 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 UN’s reinforced but still largely toothless peacekeepers were in no position to stop it. “The conflict is no longer about achieving a specific objective ... It is about establishing one’s power of deterrence, defining the rules of the game, showing who is boss.” That, in theory, is also Rice’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 administration’s line that countering extremism in Iran and Iraq, and among Al Qaeda and like-minded jihadists, was Washington’s top priority. That is more likely to dismay than rally ministers from the eight “moderate” 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 Israel’s PM, Ehud Olmert, is in no shape politically to reopen peace talks, offered no concrete response.

Impatience with Rice’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 Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions and shamed by Hizbullah’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. — The Guardian