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Room for diplomacy in the Middle East

SECRETARY OF STATE Condoleezza Rice's mission to the Middle East is a chance to reassert American leadership in the region and salvage our interests. While the crisis in Lebanon is the catalyst for her trip, hanging in the balance is the relative strength of moderates and extremists in the most volatile part of the world. A return to the status quo ante, where Hezbollah could hit Israel at will, also would embolden Hamas to step up terrorist attacks in Israel, invite Damascus to continue destabilizing Lebanon, reinforce Iranian recalcitrance on its nuclear program, and embolden radical fundamentalists everywhere.

As bad as the situation looks, there is an opportunity for an outcome that sets back the extremists and benefits the moderates. Producing that outcome requires imaginative, energetic, and sustained diplomacy, led by the United States. A remarkable confluence of views -- and interests -- can be the foundation for this effort. Not just the United States and Israel, but the European powers, Russia, and the Sunni Arabs all hold Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran responsible for the breach of the peace.

The Group of Eight leaders recognized Israel's right to self-defense and stated that ``the immediate crisis results from efforts by extremist forces to destabilize the region." Saudi Arabia was remarkably blunt in blaming Hezbollah for ``miscalculated adventures" and assessing to it ``full responsibility of these irresponsible acts." Most Arab governments, already concerned that Iran has extended its influence to Iraq, view Hezbollah's actions as a proxy for more Iranian expansionism.

In Lebanon itself, there is profound anger at Hezbollah for its recklessness, which has shattered the progress in rebuilding the country after the civil war and Syria's suffocating occupation. I observed the first day of voting in last year's Lebanese elections. They propelled to power an anti-Syrian coalition, but also reinforced the strength of Hezbollah. I heard the intense pleas of the Lebanese to live a normal life in a normal country. They no longer want to be the battleground for proxy wars cynically directed from Tehran and Damascus.

American diplomacy should unite these strands of common interest into an effective policy. But there are considerable challenges. Syria's Bashar al-Assad has shown himself to be weak and unreliable. We lack a comprehensive dialogue with Iran. Emotions are running high in the Arab world and Israel. And the diplomatic record of the Bush administration doesn't inspire confidence.

In joining with Europe (particularly France), the United Nations, and Saudi Arabia, the administration succeeded in forcing Syria to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 under the terms of Security Council Resolution 1559. But it failed to follow through on the other two requirements of 1559 -- the disarmament of Hezbollah and the deployment of the Lebanese Army to the south. Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah filled the vacuum. Iran has outspent us by as much as 5 to 1 in Lebanon, enabling Hezbollah to out-compete the Lebanese government in building social services and military might.

The challenge for the administration is to reconstruct the alliance that ejected Syria from Lebanon, with a clear commitment to three main objectives.

First, deploy the Lebanese Army to the border, with the possibility of an international/UN force in the interim to augment it. To prevent a repeat of past painful experiences with peacekeeping in Lebanon, there has to be widespread political support, in Lebanon and beyond, for an international force. It also has to have the ability to physically prevent Hezbollah from moving back to the border.

Second, set up a mechanism to disarm Hezbollah of its remaining rockets and missiles and preventing resupply from Syria and Iran.

Third, build up the Lebanese government and army to decisively shift the balance of power away from Hezbollah. That will require a significant reconstruction effort in Lebanon when the guns fall silent. We should be working with this coalition in organizing that effort now, so that no time is lost.

The United States need not carry the burden alone. Instead, it should organize a division of labor. Europe, with France in the lead, can help rebuild the Lebanese Army and provide the core of an effective international stabilization force. Egypt and Saudi Arabia can bring pressure to bear on Damascus. The Saudis and other oil-rich Gulf states can help pay for Lebanon's reconstruction.

None of this will happen without American leadership. It won't be easy, but if we succeed, we can do what our misadventures in the region have so far failed to accomplish: Shift the balance in the Middle East in favor of progress and moderation.

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. is a Democrat from Delaware.

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