As we left Andrews AFB yesterday, we picked up hints that we might be making an unscheduled stop in Cyprus, presumably to review the evacuation efforts. There was also talk of Beirut, but officials weren't talking. Only after a Midnight refueling stop in Ireland did top officials turn on the lights and tell us we were going to Lebanon.
I've been to Beirut with several secretaries of state, including Condoleezza Rice, but never this way -- boarding military helicopters into a war zone, snaking through streets in a hair-raising motorcade at breakneck speeds, and then scrambling as Lebanese camera crews almost body tackled Rice to get a picture of her going into a meeting with their prime minister. A U.S. embassy official told us, "please understand, they are desperate for any solutions, she's the first person to arrive that might have some answers."
So far, she hasn't, except for offering a big humanitarian aid package and reasserting that an immediate cease-fire is not the solution. But this is tough stuff, and she's only beginning. Her top Middle East advisor, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, said the important thing is that now, with this step, the U.S. is firmly in the picture in leading the diplomacy.
Rice didn't see much of the destruction -- it is largely in the southern suburbs. She boarded her helicopter at the U.S. embassy landing zone. I noticed that the embassy building that had been bombed by Hezbollah in 1984 is now a temporary bivouac for Marines who've been brought in to beef up embassy security. They're camped out in the shell of the building that still stands overshadowing the newer embassy complex. An ominous shadow indeed. When Rice and the rest of us landed after the one-hour chopper ride from Beirut to Cyprus, everyone, including the secretary of state, was covered in hydraulic fluid dripping from the choppers. She put on a game face and arrived in Israel for a dinner with the foreign minister. Her first priority -- getting Israel to agree to humanitarian corridors through which to deliver aid to the Lebanese. Rice has promised Lebanon $30 million in aid -- a down payment on an international appeal for $150 million.
We'll have more on all this tonight on Nightly News...