Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has become increasingly dismayed over President Bush’s support for Israel to continue its war with Hezbollah.
State Department sources said Ms. Rice has been repeatedly stymied in her attempts to pressure Israel to end strikes against Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon. The sources said the secretary’s trip to the Middle East last week was torpedoed by the Israeli air strike of a Lebanese village in which 25 people were killed.
“I’ve never seen her so angry,” an aide said.
The U.S. response to the Israeli-Hezbollah war was said to have divided both the administration as well as the family of President George W. Bush. At the same time, it marked the first time since Ms. Rice became secretary of state that the president has overruled her.
“For the last 18 months, Condi was given nearly carte blanche in setting foreign policy guidelines,” a senior government source familiar with the issue said. “All of a sudden, the president has a different opinion and he wants the last word.”
The disagreement between Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice is over the ramifications of U.S. support for Israel’s continued offensive against Lebanon. The sources said Mr. Bush believes that Israel’s failure to defeat Hezbollah would encourage Iranian adventurism in neighboring Iraq. Ms. Rice has argued that the United States would be isolated both in the Middle East and Europe at a time when the administration seeks to build a consensus against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Instead, Ms. Rice believes the United States should engage Iran and Syria to pressure Hezbollah to end the war with Israel. Ms. Rice has argued that such an effort would result in a U.S. dialogue with Damascus and Tehran on Middle East stability.
“The United States and Israel must understand that it is not in their long-term interests to allow themselves to become isolated in the Middle East and the world,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Rice ally and senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Both Damascus and Tehran must hear from America directly.”
Ms. Rice has garnered support from several senior Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee, including chairman Sen. Richard Lugar. Members of the inner circle of Mr. Bush’s father, the former president, have also been advocating for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon, with subsequent pressure on Israel for a diplomatic settlement with the Palestinians.
Ms. Rice’s biggest supporter has been Brent Scowcroft, who served under the first Bush administration as national security advisor. Sources said Mr. Scowcroft, regarded as Ms. Rice’s mentor, has been sending messages to his friends in Congress and the White House that U.S. support for the Israeli war could jeopardize relations with Gulf oil suppliers, particularly Saudi Arabia.
“A comprehensive peace settlement would not only defang the radicals in Lebanon and Palestine, and their supporters in other countries, it would also reduce the influence of Iran — the country that, under its current ideology, poses the greatest potential threat to stability in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan,” Mr. Scowcroft wrote in a column in the Washington Post on July 30.
The sources said Mr. Bush’s position has been supported by Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and to a lesser extent National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. They have urged the president to hold off international pressure and give Israel more time to cause strategic damage to Hezbollah as well as Iranian and Syrian interests in Lebanon.
“I think if you think of what’s happening in Lebanon and Israel right now, you see the face of the beginning of the 21st century,” Mr. Rumsfeld said in a radio interview on Aug. 2.
Aides for Mr. Cheney have argued that the United States should have targeted Hezbollah and Syria during the war against Iraq in 2003. They said despite U.S. intelligence warnings Hezbollah was allowed to dominate Lebanon and build a formidable force along the Israeli border.
“There was talk of taking care of Hezbollah and Syria, but Condi and [then-Secretary of State Colin] Powell said ‘no way. We don’t need another front,'” an official said.
Mr. Bush’s support for Israel has also struck a chord with most Americans. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll reported that 59 percent supported Israel in the war against Hezbollah and only 13 percent of respondents backed an immediate ceasefire.
But the sources said Mr. Bush has been dismayed by the Israeli failure to defeat Hezbollah. They said several high-ranking Republicans have expressed amazement at the plodding Israeli advance into Lebanon.
“One Jewish friend of Bush actually called up a senior Israeli official and began yelling, ‘What the hell’s going on here,'” a source said. “‘Are you going to fight or what?'”