Washington It has been a hard stretch of diplomatic road for the Condoleezza Rice we see in public. That is the "frustrated and stressed" secretary of state who made no visible progress on the crisis in Lebanon while visiting the Middle East. But beneath that surface image of failure lies a strategic opening for the private policymaker Rice to exploit.
The opening has been understandably obscured by the tragic human carnage of the Israeli-Hezbollah border war and by diplomacy's habits of subterfuge. Moreover, the strategic moment is dependent on a still-to-be established willingness by Rice to break through the stereotypes that imprison President Bush's rhetoric and policy on the Middle East. I do not underestimate the difficulties involved.
But three weeks of unexpected summer warfare and the wide-ranging diplomatic consultations the fighting has sparked produced some surprising new elements. They make the next three weeks an important incubation period for strategic change and a defining moment for Rice's legacy at the State Department:
l Israel, deeply distrustful of Europe and international peacekeeping for the past four decades, is now demanding that a strong multinational force be deployed to control Hezbollah, as the condition for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. The proposed force would be led by France - which privately echoes the view of the stabilization force publicly voiced by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He says it must be composed of "real soldiers and not retirees who come to spend some pleasant months in Lebanon."
l Europe's largest governments, including France, have quietly but clearly been rooting for Israel to dismantle Hezbollah and inflict a political defeat on Syria and Iran, the main sponsors of the Lebanese Shiite movement. While publicly arguing with American priorities in the crisis, the Europeans have tacitly encouraged Rice in her efforts to buy time for Israel to degrade Hezbollah's war-fighting capabilities.
"If there is more of an openness by Israel toward Europe and the international community, it may be because we sense more of an openness toward Israel" as Europeans and others react to a growing threat from jihadist terrorism and blackmail, notes one Israeli official.
l Rice has given U.S. Foreign Service professionals the space to construct new containment strategies for Iran (Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns) and North Korea (Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill), and those strategies have produced important U.N. Security Council resolutions and a communique by the Group of Eight supporting U.S. policy goals. "There has been a strategic click in the minds of others," says one U.S. official. "We must sustain and deepen it."
The "frustrated and stressed" description of Rice comes not only from media accounts but also from foreign officials who dealt with her on the diplomatic trip from hell. She was embarrassed when Israeli officials seemed to withhold from her news of the horrific killing of civilians in Qana and subsequently when her visit to Beirut was canceled.
Failure, however, is a relative term in diplomacy, which values the art of not making a deal while professing to seek one. Bush and Rice had no intention of pressing Israel to accept a quick cease-fire before it crippled Hezbollah. In the narrow terms of non-deal-making, Rice succeeded on her trip.
But her task now is to convince Bush to extend into the Middle East and Persian Gulf the active U.S. pragmatism and concern for multilateral cooperation she has nurtured elsewhere. Immediate U.S. goals should be defensive in nature and compatible with those of the European Union as well as Israel: Hezbollah cannot be allowed to emerge claiming a military victory over Israel by maintaining the status quo, and Iran cannot be allowed to use the crisis to gain new leverage in defying U.N. resolutions on its nuclear program.
Such limited goals fall far short of "a new Middle East" that would be created by regime change in Tehran and Damascus, a scenario dear to the far-right ideologues who are already railing at Rice and her aides for supposedly betraying Bush's conservative and combative instincts. It is reminiscent of the mid-1980s when George Shultz nudged Ronald Reagan onto a different, more pragmatic course in dealing with the Soviet Union.
Rice has often been mistaken as a protegee of Brent Scowcroft - for whom she worked in the George H.W. Bush White House - and she has praised Dean Acheson as a model secretary of state. But to navigate this crisis she should rely on the example of Shultz: He knew that his most important work was inside the White House, not in foreign lands.