Mapping U.S. Policy in a Changing Middle East

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Back in Washington from a vacation at his Texas ranch, President Bush takes part in a series of meetings on the Middle East at the Pentagon and State Department. The president is being briefed on developments in Lebanon and Iraq — and weighing U.S. responses. NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving discusses what lies ahead.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

President Bush is meeting with top advisers today in Washington to discuss Lebanon and Iraq. He flew back early from his ranch in Texas. And joining us to talk about the president's day and the days ahead is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

And Ron, who is the president meeting with today and what's the purpose of these meetings?

RON ELVING reporting:

Madeleine, you can say that the president is dividing his day between the challenges of war-making and the challenges of peacemaking. Starting in the morning at the Pentagon, several briefings on Iraq, redeployment of U.S. forces there to protect Baghdad, something like 12,000 new U.S. and Iraqi forces are deployed in the capital, but there's been more violence there overnight.

And also briefings today on the transforming of the military to meet the threats of the 21st century - insurgency, asymmetric wars, as they call them, wars between big powers and small. And this was a big theme for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when he came to office.

And the second half of the day's program, after lunch to the State Department with Condoleezza Rice, who's back from her nonstop travels of the last several weeks. She was, of course, pursuing a cease-fire in the war between Hezbollah and Israel.

BRAND: And what is the administration hoping to see happen with the cease-fire?

ELVING: At this point the administration is a bit frustrated with what it might have expected from this conflict. After the capture of the two Israeli soldiers, on July 12th, the Israelis went storming north, of course, primarily with air bombardment trying to degrade Hezbollah as a fighting force. And the White House was clearly supportive in this - supplies and intelligence, and also adopting this conflict as part of the larger global war on terror, linking it to the fight against Islamic extremists throughout the region.

And there are even those who suggest that the Israeli reaction to this provocation by Hezbollah was largely driven by the United States and its interests in the region. Sey Hersh, the investigative reporter, in the New Yorker is arguing that this week.

But Hezbollah has proven to be more tenacious than was expected. And world opinion, of course, was moved by the sight of Lebanese civilians and their suffering. So after five weeks, we're coming around to this cease-fire agreement, which we're backing as kind of a Plan B.

BRAND: Hmm. Well, talk about the timing and the location of the meetings today. Why did the president fly back from Crawford?

ELVING: Well, this is something of a planned interruption. Unlike previous summers, the president has planned all along to spend a lot of the month back here in Washington and around the country, not strictly in Crawford. But it's clearly better public relations in a time of world crisis for the president to be seen back in Washington, at the Pentagon, or the State Department, rather than seeing again the mountain biking shot, or the brush clearing shot, or the group pictures of Rumsfeld and Condi coming to the ranch standing around and looking uncomfortable in shirt sleeves or Western wear.

BRAND: Well, let's talk about the public relations aspect of this and how it's working out in terms of public opinion. What are the polls saying?

ELVING: There's not been much of a rally-round effect from the Middle East crisis. Several polls have been done, and since the break-up of that British plot, for the airline blowup plot over the Atlantic, and those show the president is scoring better on keeping the U.S. secure and fighting terrorism. He's up about 10 points on those measures. But no polls are finding his overall rating going up or doing much better. He's still under 40, and some polls show him sagging back toward the mid 30s and even a little bit lower.

BRAND: NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: And to get more of Ron Elving's political analysis, you can read his column Watching Washington. It's at our Web site, npr.org.

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