The United States is charting a separate course from its European and Arab allies in the Middle East.
The two-week-old conflict between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon follows the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the Hamas victory in Palestinian election as events that highlight the Bush administration’s different focus.
In each case, President Bush has pursued a strategic, long-term goal that he sees as worth short-term costs. In the Lebanon crisis, the administration sees an opportunity to disable Hezbollah as a fighting force, while European diplomats and Lebanon’s beleaguered leader argue that the conflict already has claimed too many lives and must stop immediately.
The United States and its ally Israel are nearly alone in the world in rejecting the idea of a quick truce. Rice has said repeatedly that a cease-fire without conditions would allow Hezbollah to regroup and attack Israel or other nations anew.
The awkward split was clear as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice finished three days of inconclusive Mideast diplomacy on Wednesday with an emergency international meeting in Rome that failed to produce a unified statement on the short-term goal of ending the fighting.
The U.S. has been holding out for a sustainable cease fire that would not just stop the fighting, but minimize Hezbollah’s long-term threat to Israel. Flying to Malaysia for a conference on Asian issues, Rice told reporters that she made that point to diplomats in Rome.
“When will we learn?” she said she told them. “The fields of the Middle East are littered with broken cease fires and every time there’s a broken cease fire, people die, there is destruction and there is misery.”
Rice could return to the Middle East as soon as this weekend.
A ‘new Middle East’?
During stops in Lebanon and Israel this week, Rice said the Lebanon crisis offers an opportunity for a “new Middle East.” That reflects the Bush administration’s hope for deep-rooted democracy in a region marked by autocratic governments and family dynasties. But it antagonizes some of the very Arab powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that Rice will need to negotiate peace, said Arthur Hughes, a former ambassador to Yemen.
“I think the United States is very isolated, and it was very late” to begin active diplomacy, Hughes said.
The Iraq war has been widely opposed in the Arab world and Europe, but more than three years into it the Bush administration and some key allies have essentially agreed to disagree. The current crisis is not likely to provoke the strong divisions evident early in that conflict, but it leaves Washington in the familiar position of defending its objectives to a skeptical world.
The administration faced lesser disagreement among friends over its hard-line position against any accommodation for the Hamas militants who won democratic Palestinian elections.
The effort to stave off nuclear weapons in Iran has yielded mixed diplomatic results among allies. Initially nervous that the United States planned an invasion similar to that in Iraq, European nations later united behind the U.S. view that Iran must bargain away its nuclear ambitions or face punishment in the United Nations Security Council.
Rice abandoned a strong U.S. stance against face-to-face negotiation with Iran this spring when it became clear that a hard-won international consensus was falling apart.
In Rome, Rice and her aides papered over divisions about the timing of a cease-fire. They focused instead on agreement among the group that the fighting must end on lasting terms.
“I looked into Prime Minister (Fuad) Saniora’s eyes,” she told reporters about the Lebanese leader, who was in Rome. “I know what this must be like for him. I talked to (Israeli) Prime Minister (Ehud) Olmert. They’ve got 1 million people in bomb shelters. I know what this must be like for him.”
Participants at the Rome conference — 18 leaders from North America, Europe and the Arab world — agreed on a need for a multinational force to stabilize Israel’s border with Lebanon.
The meeting was held in Europe after Arab capitals balked at the prospect of hosting Rice for a session that seemed unlikely to stop what their citizens see as Israeli aggression against civilians.
Saniora, whose young democratic government the United States badly wants to succeed, begged the conference participants to help bring a quick halt to fighting that has killed more than 400 Lebanese civilians.
He did little to hide his bitterness and disappointment with the result.
“We wanted a cease-fire, an immediate cease-fire,” Saniora said, with Rice and others at his side. “The more we delay the cease-fire, the more we are going to witness (that) more are being killed, more destruction and more aggression against the civilians in Lebanon.”
At a separate news conference, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said he regretted that the delegates had not agreed to a joint statement urging an immediate cease-fire.
He said the French wanted to call for an “immediate cessation of hostilities,” but Rice insisted that the statement say only that they would “work immediately for the cessation of hostilities,” and she won out.
Italian Premier Romano Prodi was matter-of-fact about the limitations of the conference, given the U.S. position.
“I believe that it was a success if we analyze what was possible realistically,” Prodi told The Associated Press. “What could be achieved was achieved.”
AP Diplomatic Writer Anne Gearan contributed to this article from Washington.