SHANNON, Ireland – It had to be the most difficult moment of the most difficult week of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s 18-month tenure as America’s chief diplomat.

She was deep in one-on-one discussions Sunday with Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz and closing in on a deal that could end the violence in Lebanon and Israel, when David Welch, her top aide for the Middle East, knocked on the door.

There were reports, Welch told her, that Israeli jets had bombed a civilian refuge in Qana, Lebanon, killing dozens, many of them children. Peretz evidently hadn’t told Rice that.

Rice recalled on Monday that she instantly knew one thing: She wouldn’t be taking a planned trip to Beirut that afternoon to try to close the deal.

Rice has won largely good reviews as President Bush’s second-term secretary of state, working hard to repair ties with Europe that were torn asunder by the Iraq war and getting credit for moving much of foreign policy decision-making back to the State Department from the Defense Department and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

But whether her reputation will continue intact is likely to depend on how she handles the Lebanon crisis, which, more than any other challenge she has faced over the last year and a half, has her name on it.

The problems in Iraq are generally laid to Bush, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Rice’s role in confronting Iran and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs has been primarily modifying positions from Bush’s first term to bring them closer to the Europeans’.

But the chaos in Lebanon challenges the core of Rice and Bush’s second-term foreign policy – spreading democracy across the Muslim world.

A little more than a year ago, Lebanon was Exhibit A in Rice’s case that the Middle East was finally changing. Lebanese demonstrated by the tens of thousands to protest the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Syria was forced to withdraw its troops, and democratic elections were held.

But by last week, as she jetted from the Middle East to Asia and back, Rice seemed knocked off her game, reacting to events rather than shaping them.

She called the fighting in Lebanon “the birth pangs of a new Middle East,” a statement that has been widely lampooned, though it fits Rice’s view that democracy is inexorably on the march and that anyone who uses violence must be trying to stop it.

Columnists across the Muslim world pilloried Rice for refusing to call for an immediate cease-fire as the civilian toll grew.

The famously self-controlled Rice seemed back in form on Monday as she flew home to Washington, insisting to reporters that her effort to remake fractious Lebanon and its relations with Israel was the right approach to take, though some analysts believe the goal is a diplomatic pipe dream.

“It’s important not to lose focus on what you’re trying to do. It means not taking any immediate answer that will only break down later,” she said. “Unless you have a (moral) compass and unless you’re willing to act on principle, then you’re not going to contribute ultimately to peace.”

Rice’s test will come quickly. She’ll barely pause in Washington before heading to the United Nations to negotiate a Security Council resolution that she hopes will end the fighting.

Her success, however, is hardly guaranteed. France already has proposed a resolution that differs from the U.S. strategy by calling for an immediate cease-fire. And there are many other stumbling blocks – from how long it would take to deploy an international peacekeeping force to whether Hezbollah would really agree to disarm.

“For those of us who were involved in a small way … it’s hard to see Lebanon in this condition,” Rice said Monday.

Perhaps alluding to the Bush administration’s dwindling time left in office, Rice said: “When you’re secretary of state, you only have a limited period of time in which to try and help affect what is a very complicated and difficult region.” If it’s not done properly, she said, “we will have missed an opportunity.”

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