ANALYSIS: The moment of truth for the Bush administration
For how long can the U.S. toe a line it sees as justified, but whose positive results are slow to appear?
For more than a year now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been working on her image around the world. A year's worth of effort, and some worthy achievements, and then in two weeks of crisis everything is ruined.
The Europeans, the ambassadors the United Nations, the leaders of Arab states, all those who saw in Rice a stabilizing factor, calculated and reasonable in the Bush administration, are reevaluating their stance toward her. For Rice, this is a personal blow, and also a professional obstacle. Her prestige is an important tool of the trade, and with its absence she will find it difficult to mark successes in the future.
Rice will return to Washington on Monday, frustrated and bruised from two weeks of an exhausting trek that has come to an end on a bitter note. She will sit in meetings with her team in order to think about the crisis anew. Her first mission will be to ensure that the State Department and the White House are broadcasting on the same wavelength.
For the first time during the talks between the Americans and their Israeli counterparts, there is some tension. Israel is not delivering the goods: a quick and convincing victory over Hezbollah, and in its actions Israel is making it more difficult for the Americans to block the international tide in favor of a cease-fire. As such, in different parts of the Bush administration there is a growing realization that the time is approaching when it will be necessary to "cut and bolt with whatever is at hand," as one Washington source said Sunday. Perhaps this will be sooner than Israel expects.
Still, the White House is not the State Department. It is less sensitive to the cries from Europe and a lot more attuned to the domestic political scene, where Israel has the advantage for the time being.
The war in Lebanon is creating a warm political consensus. Senator Chuck Schumer (Democrat, NY), normally one of the administration's most vociferous critics, said Sunday that "he has no criticism of the president on this issue."
The crisis in Lebanon, according to the senior analyst Stewart Rothenberg, who visited Israel several times prior to the war, "could help President Bush" and the Republicans by placing the terror issue on center stage. As the days go by, the Democrates will try to find a solution to the crisis that would enable them to return to the issues that are less convenient for the administration.
Rice, the only member of the administration that enjoys a higher than 50 percent approval rating in the U.S., will be a prime target. She will walk a tight rope at the UN and attempt to avoid appearing to be undermining relations between the U.S. and its closest allies.
The administration is faced with a tough decision that is likely to be reached Monday or Tuesday: how much longer will the administration be willing to toe a line that it considers justified, but whose positive outcomes are slow to manifest themselves? A senior diplomat said Sunday that this will depend on the degree to which the U.S. "trusts in Israel's ability to win the battle."