I'm watching al-Jazeera's live coverage of the Rome conference right now. Al-Jazeera bumper sticker summary: Rome conference fails because United States rejects a ceasefire. The camera captured Condoleeza Rice looking visibly uncomfortable as Lebanon's Prime Minister Seniora calmly but angrily denounced "Israel's aggression against Lebanon", and visibly upset when he quietly said that "everything which delays a ceasefire is something which exacerbates the suffering of the Lebanese people" (not an exact quote, just a sense of what I heard him say). Rice expressed grave concern about the Iranian role in Lebanon, and concern for the humanitarian situation - which, at a time when her government is pretty much solely responsible for allowing the bombing to continue, is pretty the definition of adding insult to injury.
I came in late, and therefore didn't see the whole thing, but the overall tone of the press conference (which had already been delayed an hour in an attempt to reach consensus) was grim. Sure, they issued a statement which affirmed international resolutions on Hezbollah disarmament and called for a UN-sanctioned multinational force. But those statements were efforts to dress up a failure and make it look presentable. Without any move to a ceasefire, or any implementable recommendations, there's nothing much to dress up. Even more than at any time over Iraq, America looks deeply isolated.
I don't know anyone who will be surprised that the Rome conference failed - it seems to have been designed to fail, to give the US the chance to appear to be "doing something" while giving Israel the time it wants to continue its offensive. But this policy is so transparent, such an obvious stalling mechanism, that it is probably making things even worse for the United States and for Israel: when you are faking it, you're supposed to at least try to maintain the pretence so that others can at least pretend to believe you. The call for an immediate ceasefire has become more or less universal now, other than from the United States and Israel: even the pro-American Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, which initially blamed Hezbollah for the crisis, are now loudly demanding an immediate ceasefire.
America is totally alone on this. And more than most Americans might realize, America is being blamed for Israel's actions. The shift in Arab public discourse over the last week has been palpable. For the first few days, the split between the Saudi media and the "al-Jazeera public" which I wrote about at the time. Then for a few days, horror at the humanitarian situation, fury with the Arab states for their impotence, speculation about the endgame, and full-throated condemnation of Israeli aggression. But for the last few days, the main trend has been unmistakable: an increasing focus on the United States as the villain of the piece. (That the Israeli bombing of Beirut stopped just long enough for Condoleeza Rice's photo op certainly didn't help.)
While there's disagreement as to whether Israel acted on behalf of an American project, there is near-consensus about American responsibility for not stopping what al-Jazeera is now calling "the sixth [Arab-Israeli] war". For instance, al-Jazeera's prime time Behind the News on July 25 was devoted to "the American project for a new Middle East" (with no American officials accepting their invitation to participate). If you review the daily Arab media selections I've been posting in the left sidebar (with short English comments and summaries) you'll see something of this trend over the last few days: Sami Soroush, in al-Hayat, a new Middle East through Israeli war? America keeps making the same mistakes every single time; Hossein Shabakshi, al-Sharq al-Awsat, yes the Middle East needs reform and change... but not through the massacre of innocents; Abd al-Wahab Badrakhan, in al-Hayat: American plans require Israeli victory at any cost; Yasir al-Za'atra, al-Hayat: real roots of the escalating crisis is American drive for hegemony in the region; Hazem Saghiye, al-Hayat, America's responsibility; and that's not even getting in to Abd al-Bari Atwan (today: the Middle East against America) and the writers in al-Quds al-Arabi.
Perhaps this negative focus on America was inevitable, given Iraq and the war on terror and al-Jazeera?
No. This wan't inevitable. Real American leadership, such as quickly restraining the Israeli offensive and taking the lead in ceasefire negotiations, could have created a Suez moment and dramatically increased American influence and prestige (especially if the Saudis had delivered Iran in a ceasefire agreement, as I've heard that Saudi officials believed that they could). But by disappearing for the first days of the war and then resurfacing only to provide a megaphone for Israeli arguments and to prevent international efforts at achieving a ceasefire, the Bush administration put America at the center of the storm of blame. I think that the Lebanon war will go down in history as one of the greatest missed opportunities in recent American diplomatic history - not because we failed to go after Iran, or whatever the bobbleheads are ranting about these days, but because we failed to rise to the occasion and exercise real global leadership in the national interest.
One other thing. I've always been an advocate of public diplomacy, but let's be real: no public diplomacy in the world could overcome the fiasco which is America's policy. But even now I think that an actual attempt to explain America's position to the Arab media might have both made some slight difference in shaping Arab arguments and given American officials a stronger sense of how their rhetoric was playing in the Arab world. That feedback might have helped Rice avoid her steady string of disasters in the region, including her expressed surprise at the extent of destruction in Beirut and her spectacularly ill-considered formulation of the violence giving birth to a new Middle East (no single American remark thus far has earned more enraged scorn). But the Bush administration has completely punted on public diplomacy, demonstrating absolute contempt for Arab attitudes - it didn't even send officials on to relatively friendly environments like al-Arabiya - and now it's far too late. "Winning Arab and Muslim hearts and minds" has gone on the trash heap alongside "American promotion of Arab democracy" for the forseeable future. If the Bush administration has any alternative grand strategy in mind, it's carefully concealing its hand.
UPDATE: Reuters reports:
A senior State Department official traveling with Rice said she was very satisfied with the results of the meeting and that the statement showed "strong international consensus" on the issue. He disagreed that Washington was isolated in the meeting.
Things have gotten so bad that I hope this is spin.