How Does the U.S. Play Into the Crisis in the Mideast?

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This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," July 17, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: A U.N. team has been sent to Lebanon already to work on a diplomatic solution. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might go as well.

Here now, Sean McCormack, the State Department's assistant secretary for public affairs.

Mr. McCormack, thank you very much for joining us. What is the U.S. role here?

SEAN MCCORMACK, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Well, John, we are working with the rest of the international community on this situation. Our role here is to do what we can, what we think is effective to try to diffuse this crisis, not only to diffuse the immediate crisis, but to have a lasting solution so we're not back here three weeks from now, three months from now, six months from now.

So Secretary Rice said that she intends to travel to the region. We're going to work on the date, an itinerary for her. But she first wants to hear back from that U.N. team you mentioned.

GIBSON: Does the United States think Israel is doing too much in the way of hitting targets in Lebanon?

MCCORMACK: Well, we have talked to the Israeli government about avoiding any civilian casualties, any damage to the civilian infrastructure and doing anything that might undermine the Siniora government up there in Beirut. But, frankly, they have a right to defend themselves.

They were attacked. They were attacked over their border by this terrorist organization. Two of their soldiers were held captive.

Just imagine in the United States, if we faced a daily rain of missiles coming down on the United States from a neighboring state. I think that we would act to defend ourselves just as the Israelis are. But we have talked to them about using the utmost restraint.

GIBSON: Does the State Department hold the same view — that is, the U.S. government — hold the same view I hear pundits everywhere say that this is Iran attacking the United States via proxy?

MCCORMACK: Well, John, I can't connect the dots for you that Iran was responsible for this attack, but very clearly Iran is a paymaster for Hezbollah. They supply them arms. So there's a real direct relationship. Hezbollah is a creation of Iran, going back to the 1980s.

So I think that certainly Iran and Syria have an influence that they can exercise on Hezbollah that they have not done to this point. As for the exact motivations of Iran, of Syria and Hezbollah, clearly they're intent on stirring up trouble in the region, but I can't say that they are going after the United States with this particular attack.

GIBSON: I'd like to ask for your comment on a statement made by James Woolsey, the former CIA director, at the top of this program, in which he said the United States should strike Syria over Syria's supplying of Hezbollah with the material for these offenses.

MCCORMACK: Well, what we're doing right now, John, is we're working diplomatically to resolve this situation. Ultimately, we want to see a de-escalation of the current situation. There is real concern about the civilian populations, both on the Israeli side of the border and the Lebanese side of the border.

What you have right now is Syria and Iran isolated diplomatically. They are on the other side of the line with these terrorist groups. On this side of the line, you have the international community. You have the G8 that was just in St. Petersburg. You also have states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

So they're under a considerable amount of pressure right now, diplomatic pressure to bring their influence to bear on Hezbollah, on Hamas, to get those prisoners released and also to stop this rain of rockets down on Israel.

GIBSON: Is there anything the United States can do directly to Hezbollah right there on the southern Lebanese border?

MCCORMACK: Well, I don't think that we have the assets that are going to engage military in this solution. What we have are the diplomatic assets that are engaged right now.

You have Secretary Rice that, again, intends to travel to the region. We have our folks on the ground that are going to be helping out American citizens who want to leave.

So our focus right now is on our diplomatic efforts, to try to bring that pressure to bear, de-escalate the situation, and get a situation that is stable so we're not back here six months from now faced with the same kind of threat.

GIBSON: Sean McCormack, State Department's assistant secretary for public affairs, thank you very much.

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