WASHINGTON – President Bush's chief of staff said Sunday international peacekeepers might be needed in Lebanon to help end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah terrorists, but that U.S. troop involvement was unlikely.
Josh Bolten reaffirmed comments by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday, ahead of her trip to the Middle East this week, that she did not think "it is anticipated that U.S. ground forces are expected" for a potential peacekeeping contingent.
"Secretary Rice said she didn't consider it all that likely," Bolten said, adding that Rice would discuss with allies whether and when force is appropriate, as well as what form it might take. As for an international operation, Bolten said, "Secretary Rice said we're open to that."
Rice was departing late Sunday after joining President Bush in a White House meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, chief of the Saudi National Security Council.
Bolten said the president was committed to assisting Israel as part of "its right to defend itself."
"The purpose is to maintain a sustainable cease-fire," Bolten said. "It's sustainable only if we get to the root problem, which is Hezbollah, a terrorist organization."
Israel's defense minister said Sunday that his country would accept a temporary international force, preferably headed by NATO, along the Lebanese border to keep Hezbollah guerrillas away from Israel, according to officials in the minister's office.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said the Bush administration would take Amir Peretz's NATO suggestion seriously.
"We have been looking carefully at the possibility of a multinational force, perhaps authorized by the Security Council, but not a U.N.-helmeted force," John Bolton said.
"We haven't discussed the possibility of U.S. boots on the ground in Lebanon. We want to be open-minded on what's doable here," Bolton said. "The main point being to see that Hezbollah does not return to its armed, militant capacity threatening Israel and that the institutions of Lebanon cover the whole the country."
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorsed the idea of a NATO force, without U.S. soldiers.
"It would not a good idea for the United States troops to be in Lebanon," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. "I don't say that in a qualified way. I just say this categorically. We're going to have troops there, I believe of one country or another, but not the United States of America. We are extended in the area."
Rice plans meetings in Jerusalem and the West Bank with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition, she will go to Rome for sessions with representatives of European and moderate Arab governments that are meant to shore up the weak democratic government in Lebanon.
"She'll be talking to friends and allies as to whether and when force is appropriate and how it should be constructed," White House aide Bolten said.
"What we're trying to do here is put together the elements for a sustained solution to the problem, at least between Lebanon and Israel, to strengthen the government of Lebanon, to eliminate the Hezbollah terrorist threat which threatens both innocent civilians of Lebanon as well as Israel, and not to rush into anything precipitously," Bolton said.
"The worst result here would be a partial solution that returns us to this kind of problem again in a matter of weeks or months. We've got to think of the longer term here. There may be an opportunity. We need to go about it in a sustained fashion," he added.
Bush said he has directed Rice to discuss with Mideast leaders how best to end the fighting in Lebanon. The chief U.S. diplomat will not meet with Hezbollah leaders or their Syrian backers.
"Hezbollah has aspirations to be a political party in Lebanon, but political parties normally don't have anti-ship cruise missiles," Bolton said. "Iran and Syria could contribute a lot if they'd stay out of the internal affairs in Lebanon and let that new democracy flourish."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said diplomacy is the proper approach now with Hezbollah.
"Right now they're a terrorist organization. And I think everything is about terrorism as far as they're concerned. So I think they probably have to be neutralized to come to the table," he said.
Bolten said the U.S. will stand firmly behind Israel, noting that an attack on an ally is considered an attack on the U.S.
"We are allies, and we will support Israel in its right to self-defense," he said. "At the same time, we will do everything possible to make sure the crisis has a minimal impact on civilians."
The U.N. ambassador said Israel has lived for years under threat from Hezbollah and the recent attacks have given Israelis "the legitimate right, the same right America would have if we were attacked, to deal with the problem. And that's what they're doing."
The White House meeting with the Saudis follows visits to Washington last week by Egypt's intelligence chief and foreign minister, who met with Rice and Bush's national security adviser.
Bush says his administration's diplomatic efforts in the Mideast will focus on strategy for confronting Hezbollah and its supporters in Syria and Iran. In his radio address Saturday, the president said Syria has been Hezbollah's primary sponsor for years and helped provide shipments of Iranian weapons.
Asked about a diplomatic strategy of trying to separate Syria from Iran, Bolton said those countries "have engaged in an extensive amount of cooperation in recent weeks and months, which has been very troubling."
He added: "Whether Syria and Iran can be separated is a good question, but I think in immediate terms, what we want is for them to cut off theirs supplies of assistance to Hezbollah" and comply with a U.N. resolution intended to end outside dominance of Lebanon's affairs.
Bolten spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press." Bolton appeared on "FOX News Sunday" and another cable news network, where Lugar also spoke.