KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Amid an intensifying clamor for an end to Israeli-Hezbollah fighting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday she was "willing and ready" to return to the Mideast to work on a cease-fire.
As countries attending a conference on Asian issues voiced concerns about violence now raging into a third week, Rice decided to leave the sessions Friday evening instead of Saturday. She has not said where she is going, though it was widely expected she would return to the Middle East.
Rice repeated her position that the United States wants to work for a sustainable peace plan and smooth the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the Lebanese. As she did so, President Bush's spokesman said it was time for the administration to "push back" against criticism of the U.S. role.
In Malaysia, Rice planned individual meetings Friday with eight foreign ministers, including those from the Muslim nations of Indonesia and Malaysia. The diplomats were almost certain to raise the issue of the Mideast fighting.
Earlier this week, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi censured Israel when he opened the meeting of foreign ministers gathered for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"We should condemn Israel's latest use of disproportionate force in Gaza and the West Bank," said Abdullah, who heads the world's largest Islamic political conference. "We should not tolerate Israel's excessive military reprisals against Lebanon."
Speaking to reporters in Washington, Bush press secretary Tony Snow disputed what he said was a "presumption" in some quarters that the U.S. diplomatic prescription "wasn't a success unless she had a cease-fire.
"In other words, you measure by a piece of paper, rather than by the ongoing efforts," Snow said.
He said U.S. diplomats in the region are working toward a U.N. resolution, U.S. diplomats in Europe are talking about troop contributions and the United States also is helping organize humanitarian aid.
"What she has said is, ‘What on earth is the good of having another empty-handed cease-fire in the Middle East?"' Snow said. "What is the purpose of having something that is not enforceable at this juncture, and is not realistic?"
Snow also said there are talks about a troop contribution effort with U.S. allies. He said State Department counselor Philip Zelikow was working with European Union policy chief Javier Solana's staff in Brussels. He mentioned U.N. consultations over the weekend, on troop contributions, when a cease-fire is possible to provide some sort of troop presence to supplement the Lebanese armed forces.
"The Lebanese armed forces should be the principle means for creating peace in Lebanon, and we hope to be able to give them the capability and capacity to do so," he said.
Even as Rice and representatives of the nations attending the conference were preoccupied with what is happening in the Middle East, they also faced another festering diplomatic problem with North Korea's determination to develop a nuclear weapons program.
Before flying to Malaysia for the long-scheduled ASEAN regional forum, Rice spent three days traveling to Beirut, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Rome, defending the administration's insistence that a cease-fire on the Lebanon-Israeli border must be sustainable.
The position isolated her from nearly all U.S. allies, who are seeking a quick end to the fighting that has cost millions of dollars and hundreds of lives. They want to stop the fighting before engaging in complex negotiations about disarming the Lebanon's well-armed Hezbollah militia, strengthening the country's central government and other difficult issues.
As a result, a meeting of senior diplomats in Rome on Wednesday failed to produce an unanimous, concrete course for a cease-fire, falling back to a broad outline aimed at peace.
Aboard her plane en route to Asia, Rice tried to downplay expectations of a quick fix in the Lebanon or the Middle East.
"I am a student of history, so perhaps I have a little bit more patience with the enormous change in the international system and the complete shifting of tectonic plates, and I don't expect it to happen in a few days or even a year," she said.
On North Korea, the communist government has pressed ahead with its nuclear program despite international demands and launched seven missiles earlier this month, also angering other nations. The U.N. Security Council responded with an unanimous resolution to impose limited penalties against North Korea. It also demanded that the reclusive communist nation suspend its ballistic missile program.
North Korea immediately rejected the resolution and vowed to launch more missiles. North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-Sun was expected to attend the sessions in Malaysia.
Rice said she did not anticipate any talks in Malaysia with the six nations that have met formally to address the North Korea problem.