U.S. Takes the Stage in Middle East

News Analyst Cokie Roberts talks with Renee Montagne about the Bush administration's diplomatic moves around the conflict in the Middle East. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the region to work for a halt to violence. The administration is looking at the idea of an international force to secure calm along the Israel-Lebanon border.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Beirut today, her first stop on a mission to end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. She told reporters traveling with her that the United States believes a cease-fire is urgent, but, she said, it must come with the right conditions to ensure that it is sustainable.

Joining us now for some analysis is NPR's Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, the U.S. and Israel seem to be more open to the idea of an international peacekeeping force along the Israel-Lebanon border. Does that indicate a shift in U.S. policy toward the conflict?

ROBERTS: Yes, to some degree. The United States seems to be ready to listen to the notions of an international force because Israel is ready to listen to it. One thing that is very, very clear in this administration's policy is which side they are on in this conflict.

Yesterday, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten went on television. Here's what he had to say.

Mr. JOSHUA BOLTEN (White House Chief of Staff): This crisis was created by a terrorist attack, ongoing now by Hezbollah, against the sovereign territory of Israel. We're going to help our ally defend itself.

ROBERTS: He was talking on NBC's Meet the Press. He also said it would be great if Hezbollah were completely gone, but right now it needs to be into a situation where they can no longer threaten Israel. Israel has said that could take weeks, and that's where the problem now comes.

And now the United States wants the Lebanese government to take control of Hezbollah, to follow through on the U.N. resolution calling to disarming it, and to basically weaken it. So that's why when the secretary of state says a cease-fire is quote, unquote, urgent, she still says it has to be under the right conditions, meaning that Hezbollah is substantially weakened.

MONTAGNE: Now, the president met yesterday with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia who brought a personal letter from King Abdullah. What's going on there?

ROBERTS: Well, the Saudis and some other Arab states had been critical of Hezbollah, or at least silent. But the death toll has risen so much and the support for Hezbollah inside those countries has become so strong on the part of the public that the governments are becoming more critical. And there's some sense that Israel is pushing it too far for these countries to stay silent or stay on the side of the United States, and the United States is aware of that.

United Nations Ambassador John Bolton went on Fox News Sunday yesterday and made that clear.

Ambassador JOHN BOLTON (United States Ambassador to the United Nations): We have been in constant touch with the government of Israel to urge them to consider the consequences of the military actions. And I think as a responsible, democratic government itself, the government of Israel is doing that.

ROBERTS: So there's a sense of leaning harder on Israel, but the Arab countries are becoming more and more upset, and that's the reason that an international force along the Israel-Lebanese border could be a very good idea.

However, Syria has warned that if they and the Hezbollah are not involved in cooperating with this international force, that it could be a return to 1983, which is a not very veiled threat because, of course, that is when the U.S. Marines were killed in Beirut. But the United States continues to say that it will not deal directly with Syria, although the secretary of state reportedly gave some indication that there might be some opening there because the U.S. does maintain a diplomat in Syria.

MONTAGNE: And hearing John Bolton just now, Cokie, the president is expected to resubmit his nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Last year, the president bypassed the Senate and gave Bolton a recess appointment because there was so much opposition to his appointment. How is that likely to go?

ROBERTS: Well, it's likely to upset the unanimity that you have seen pretty much on the part of Democrats and Republicans in support of administration policy in this Middle East conflict.

What happened was Senator George Voinovich, a Republican, who had opposed the Bolton nomination in the first place so that the president sent it through as a recess appointment - Voinovich has changed his mind and he's written a very public op-ed saying that he's changed his mind. And so now the administration feels that this appointment can go through and that Bolton can get a permanent confirmation.

Democrats are saying, not so fast, and it's not clear yet whether or not they will filibuster this nomination.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. NPR's Senior News Analyst, Cokie Roberts.

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