WASHINGTON — Reeling from a week of diplomatic setbacks in the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice limped home Monday insisting that the United States would back a cease-fire agreement to end the war in Lebanon only if it contained the seeds of a long-term settlement to the crisis.
Despite growing world anger at the U.S. rejection of an immediate and unconditional cease-fire, Rice and President Bush held firm Monday to the administration's position. Any end to hostilities must include a plan to neutralize the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah and its ability to attack Israel, they said.
Describing the 20-day-old conflict that has engulfed much of Lebanon and northern Israel as part of a larger struggle between terrorism and democracy, Bush told an audience of Coast Guard personnel in Miami that the U.S. would press its case for what he called "a sustainable cease-fire."
"We're going to work with our allies to bring before the United Nations Security Council a resolution that will end the violence and lay the groundwork for lasting peace in the Middle East," Bush said.
Rice told reporters traveling with her as she headed back to Washington, "It doesn't make sense to have no political framework that the cease-fire is trying to protect."
But with Rice's Middle East trip cut short and an important meeting scheduled for Monday at the U.N. postponed after Israel's airstrike on a Lebanese village Sunday, it remained unclear when and how the administration planned to move forward.
The strike, on a house in Qana where Israelis said they thought Hezbollah fighters were hiding, killed as many as 56 civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly.
Fallout from the bombing seemed to leave U.S. diplomacy in worse shape than when Rice left Washington a week ago, with little visible progress toward a cease-fire, a weakened democratic government in Lebanon, a diminished number of allies in America's corner and its leverage to shape events shrinking.
In advance of an expected cease-fire call by the Security Council this week, more details emerged about the reported terms of a broader accord. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said in today's editions that Israel was willing to release two Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah on July 12.
Even if the U.S. succeeds in getting a U.N. resolution that would tie a cease-fire to the disarmament of Hezbollah, exactly who would be able to conduct such a task is far from certain.
There is support among most countries for an international peacekeeping body to enforce a cease-fire once it is agreed upon. There is much less willingness to send troops to staff the peacekeeping mission, particularly if it involves the prospect of having to fight Hezbollah's guerrillas.
As the diplomatic efforts unfold, the Bush administration has appeared once more to be slipping into the role of go-it-alone superpower defying the collective wishes of its allies.
Last week's meeting in Rome, which U.S. officials had hoped would display a unified commitment to Lebanon, instead highlighted the gulf between U.S. allies and Rice, whom they feared was delaying a halt in fighting to allow Israel to batter Hezbollah.
And as American prestige has fallen, the war has built support for Hezbollah, which has not only shown it is willing to stand up to Israel but that it is a competent and determined foe.
"This administration is learning that power is not the same thing as influence," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. "We have lots of power but not much influence."
Even in Bush's party, the disquiet was visible.
"The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now," Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said on the Senate floor Monday. "President Bush must call for an immediate cease-fire. This madness must stop."
The continued bloodshed has further fanned public anger against the U.S. in much of the Arab world, forcing normally friendly governments such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to repudiate Washington's position and providing a field day for America's adversaries.
Syria has seized on the chance to rally Arabs in favor of the resistance against Israel. President Bashar Assad on Monday accused Israel and the U.S. of "hijacking the legitimacy, institutions and decision-making" of the international community in order to continue an "inhuman war of genocide."
Syria has been working to mobilize Arab and international public opinion against Israel and in favor of an immediate cease-fire that would not obligate Hezbollah to abandon its weapons, precisely the scenario that Rice has sought to avoid.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a member of the Syrian Cabinet and an advisor to Assad, denounced the U.S. and Israel in an interview.
"There is now, I think, a deliberate strategy to make the Middle East governed by Israel and the United States," she said. "A plan was in place to destroy Lebanon and bring it under the Israeli wing."
Underscoring the United States' deteriorating relations with traditional allies is the reaction of France, which has worked closely with the Bush administration over the last two years to bring stability to Lebanon.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy publicly chided the U.S., Israel and others who did not join in his country's early call for a cease-fire.
On the same day at the U.N., Axel Cruau, a spokesman for the French mission, dismissed a meeting scheduled to deal with the crisis as premature and possibly counterproductive.
Just hours earlier, Rice had pinned hopes on the meeting, describing the U.N. as the venue where "the action really now needs to be."
Times staff writers Kim Murphy in Damascus, Syria; Rone Tempest in Beirut; Paul Richter in Shannon, Ireland; and Walter Hamilton at the United Nations contributed to this report.