WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush’s uncompromising support for Israel in its battle with Hezbollah, now backed by Congress, is threatening to isolate the United States even further from the international community.

It is also putting the administration at odds with fragile democratic governments in the Middle East that it is simultaneously trying to prop up, and sowing increasing anger across the Arab world.

The democratically elected prime ministers of both Iraq and Lebanon have been among the most vocal critics of U.S. policy in the 10-day Israeli bombardment of Lebanon.

Some foreign policy analysts question whether Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice can make much headway on her trip to the region early next week – especially given U.S. rejection of international calls for a cease-fire and refusal to talk to key players such as Hezbollah.

“You don’t just negotiate with your friends. Sometimes you negotiate with your enemies, or at least your adversaries,” said Sandy Berger, former national security adviser in the Clinton White House.

Both the first President Bush and President Clinton met directly with then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in efforts to advance Mideast peace prospects.

But the current Bush administration is adamant in resisting any direct contact with Syrian President Bashar Assad, son of the former president, or with Hezbollah leaders.

“The track record stinks” in terms of what both former Presidents Bush and Clinton achieved in their meetings with Assad’s father, White House press secretary Tony Snow said. And Rice told reporters on Friday, “Syria knows what it needs to do, and Hezbollah is the source of the problem.”

Hezbollah is an Islamic militant group based in southern Lebanon that is supported by both Syria and Iran. The crisis began when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and Israel retaliated by widespread bombing in Lebanon and with a naval blockade. Hezbollah upped the ante by firing hundreds of missiles into northern Israel, provoking more Israeli counterattacks and displacing what the U.N. estimates as a half-million people.

Arab anger is rising toward both Israel and the United States, even though moderate governments throughout the region do not wish to see Hezbollah’s tentacles grow any further, viewing the group as an extension of Iran’s ambitions to increase influence throughout the Middle East.

The U.S. has not yet been able to capitalize on that Arab ambivalence toward Hezbollah.

“The administration does the rhetoric of war well, but is not very good with diplomacy,” said Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the private Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

For the Bush administration, it’s a hard balancing act.

It wants to show it is reaching out to allies in the Middle East and in Europe, as with Rice’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories and then to Rome for a broader meeting. But the administration also doesn’t want to meet with Syria, Hezbollah or Iran – and it wants to give Israel time to try to find and destroy Hezbollah command centers and weapons stockpiles.

It all results in what critics suggest is a one-sided form of shuttle diplomacy.

Rice defended the style of her diplomacy – as well as the late start. “I could have gotten on a plane and rushed over and started shuttling and it wouldn’t have been clear what I was shuttling to do,” she said Friday.

EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.

AP-ES-07-21-06 1657EDT

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