WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is scrambling to assemble a plan to help rebuild Lebanon, hoping that by competing with Hezbollah for the public's favor it can undo the damage the war has inflicted on its image and goals for the Middle East.
Administration officials fear that unless they move quickly to demonstrate U.S. commitment, the Lebanese will turn more fully to the militant group, which has begun rolling out an ambitious reconstruction program that Washington believes is bankrolled by Iran.
American officials also believe that the administration must restore its influence to keep a newly assertive Syria from undermining U.S.-supported reformers in Lebanon.
A major rebuilding investment would put the United States in the position of subsidizing both the Israeli munitions that caused the damage and the reconstruction work that will repair it. Such a proposal could meet with resistance from Congress, but administration officials said that the need for action was urgent.
"People have been seized by the need to do more, in a tangible way, and they're working feverishly on this," said a senior administration official who asked to remain unidentified because he was speaking about plans still in development. "They know we're in a race against time to turn around these perceptions."
U.S. officials and private experts agree that the administration faces an uphill effort trying to outdo Hezbollah, which has a broad local base, well-developed social service programs and the confidence of many Lebanese.
"Hezbollah is deeply integrated into Lebanese society," said Jon Alterman, a former State Department official who is head of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"We're coming in when there's a sense that we stood by the destruction of Lebanon by an ally, with U.S. weapons, and didn't complain. So we may be too late."
Even so, Alterman said he supported the idea of trying to rebuild U.S. influence in Lebanon at a time when the political situation there is in flux.
The United States has only $50 million in the pipeline for relief and rebuilding in Lebanon, a figure dwarfed by multibillion-dollar estimates of the need. The U.S. is lagging behind some other contributors, such as Saudi Arabia, which has pledged $1.5 billion. An international donors conference is to be held Aug. 31.
But American officials say they expect to expand the effort, which is largely focused on rebuilding the airport, restoring electric power, cleaning up environmental damage and reconstructing some of the estimated 150 destroyed bridges.
The U.S. effort is aimed in part at supporting its allies in the fragile Lebanese central government, which is competing with Hezbollah for influence. Moving rapidly, Hezbollah officials fanned out across the country this week, canvassing the needs of residents and promising help. In some areas of the south, Hezbollah already had fielded cleanup teams with bulldozers.
The U.S. official said talk of a deeper rebuilding role was one of several discussions underway within the administration. He said there was talk about launching a broader diplomatic and economic initiative for the Middle East aimed at increasing involvement in mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as in regional economic development and politics.
Officials are "focused on the idea that things better change, or we're going to have serious problems," he said. Many people in the region believe the United States was a "co-combatant" in the war, he acknowledged.
With Congress on its August break, lawmakers have not explicitly taken positions on funding for rebuilding. But some influential members have given indications.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he would like the United States to take a lead role in the rebuilding by giving generously and organizing meetings of donors. He has argued that the U.S. missed an opportunity by failing to do more in Lebanon last year, as Syria withdrew its troops from the country, leaving a partial vacuum.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, voted for a resolution that called for a postwar donors conference. But he made it clear that there should be careful planning before the U.S. committed large sums, an aide noted.
Alterman, the analyst, said providing aid posed complicated challenges in Lebanon, and that the money could easily be wasted without the United States getting any advantage from it.
"Lebanon is a tough commercial environment.... It's tough coming from the outside, trying to identify reliable people," he said. "We could end up getting no credit -- or, worse yet, it could end up in the bank accounts of the very people who are trying to get us out."