But the former US deputy secretary of state, during George Bush's first term as president also told Aljazeera.net that the Bush administration must engage in direct talks with Syria and Iran.

Armitage was also assistant secretary of defence under president Ronald Reagan when the US embassy in Lebanon was bombed in 1983. In 1998, he signed the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) letter to president Bill Clinton urging regime change in Iraq.

He was the last senior official to speak to the Syrian government in January 2005.

At the time he indicated Syria and the US had made progress regarding the security issue along the border with Iraq.

"Syria has made some real improvements in the recent months on border security. We all need to do more, particularly on the question of foreign regime elements participating in activities in Iraq going back and forth from Syria," Armitage told the press then.

Aljazeera.net: Two weeks after the shooting started in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel, you were one of the first people to openly advocate negotiations with Damascus and Tehran. Why?

Richard Armitage: It seems to me that Iran is the major supporter of Hezbollah and Damascus facilitates that support to Hezbollah. If we're going to have a solution it's going to have to be one that includes Iran and Syria. It's quite clear to me and I hope it will be quite clear to the administration.

You openly criticised the Bush administration's Middle East policies by stating recently that "this administration has an irrational fear that talking is a sign of weakness".

It's correct. My personal belief is that diplomacy is the art of sitting down with someone and letting them have your way. But the administration seems to believe it's a sign of weakness that we're talking and by the very nature of talking we will give away some of our bilateral equities. So I disagree entirely with them.

The president and Dr [Condoleezza] Rice have said at two different times that "we've talked to Syria and nothing was achieved". I myself went to Syria on New Years day in 2005 and I asked several things to the Syrian government and two of them they actually agreed to: Keep their hands off the Lebanese government elections - they did - and I asked them for some help getting turned over to Iraqi and US forces the half brother of Saddam Hussein and they did.

I didn't get everything that I wanted but that's something and that's the beginning of discussions.

Has Israel's campaign in Lebanon deterred the US from attacking Iran?

I don't know if the US was on the verge of attacking Iran. I think the president has said he prefers diplomacy. On the question of Iran, we will study the Iranian offer they made today to the negotiators in Geneva, see if we can have serious talks with them on the nuclear question and therefore obliterate the need for military action. I don't think we have exhausted diplomacy with Iran.

You were an assistant secretary of defence back in 1982, when a peacekeeping force was sent into Lebanon but ultimately pressed to withdraw. Do you see any parallels with the current multinational force headed to south Lebanon?

I think the parallels begin before multinational forces. I also said in 1982 my Israeli friends [were] sitting in my office telling me not to worry about the "Peace for Galilee" operation because the Israelis understood the Lebanese so well, after all they were neighbours.

Well it turns out they did not understand the complex politics of Lebanon very well. I am afraid the same thing happened this time. So the parallels begin much prior to a multinational force. The question of the multinational force is what they really are going to do. And we keep hearing the word "robust" rules of engagement; I don't understand what that means. This is not a chapter seven operation, it's a chapter six operation from the UN charter and so I don't quite know what "robust" means. I think there's quite a while before we actually get a meaningful multinational force in place.

So I am grateful to the government of Italy for deciding to step up.

Will it make a difference?

I think it's unreasonable to expect that the Lebanese armed forces will either be willing or able to disarm Hezbollah at all. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if many of the sympathies of the armed forces reside with Hezbollah.
 
A year after 9/11, you were asked at a Washington forum whether the Bush administration had plans, in its "war on terror", for Hezbollah. You said:  "Their time will come. There is no question about it. They have a blood debt to us, and we're not going to forget it." Have they repaid their debt in the latest conflict?

For me as long as long as they are still armed and are still inciting violence then they have not paid their debt. This is very personal for me: In addition to the marines barracks bombing in 1983 they were very much responsible for the killing of Colonel Rich Higgins who was serving with the United Nations.

He was a friend of mine, he was killed in the most heinous way, in a way I will not describe to your readers because they will be horrified. But that is a blood debt. Now if Hezbollah were to put down their arms and move 100% into the political arena that would be quite a different story. 

Rice said the Lebanon conflict represented the "birth pangs of a new Middle East" and is on the verge of realisation. Yet we are back at yet another ceasefire and stalemate. How do you view this so called new Middle East?

From Marrakesh (Morocco) to Bangladesh, people were astonished by this statement. I don't think the birth pangs of the Middle East. I think it's the aftershocks of the Ottoman Empire, that's what we're seeing. But if we're saying it's the birth pangs of the new Middle East then we gave birth to a very difficult baby (laughs).

Do you think the Bush doctrine of "spreading democracy" in the Middle East has backfired?

Well it certainly is an irony that in democratic elections we've seen for instance Hezbollah now occupying seats in the cabinet of Lebanon, Hamas's victory in the Palestinian territories. So I wouldn't say it backfired but there's certainly an irony that the first expressions of this democracy seems to have brought about people who are very closed to the United States. I think in the long run we'll see what these parties can really deliver and I think it's too early to tell if it backfired.

Let's move on to Iraq. You were a great supporter of regime change in Iraq. Do you regret it?

I don't regret the changing of the Saddam regime. I think if I lived in Iran, if I lived in Kuwait for obvious reasons I wouldn't regret it, if I were a Kurd I wouldn't regret it, if I were a Shia I wouldn't regret it. But what I do regret [is] the manner in which we did it. We weren't escapable, we did not have enough soldiers, we weren't smart enough to manage the peace. And I regret that very much.

Shia factions who at the beginning supported the US are now openly turning against it. Is it time for the US to pull out of Iraq?

No. I think the government of Iraq will know when it's the proper time, when they can handle this. I agree with the president when he said it's not the time to leave. The irony is right now, although the Shia welcomed the liberation of Iraq, it's the Sunnis who are more desirous of having the US to provide some kind of security.