This week, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is once again in the Middle East, but it is far from clear why she is there and what she hopes to achieve.
Has she got a plan of action for resolving some of the festering conflicts of the region? Has she got the firm personal backing of President George W. Bush? Is she carrying a big stick as befits the chief foreign affairs officer of a superpower? Will she use some real American muscle to force the various adversaries to sit down and negotiate?
Or is this just a public relations exercise aimed at improving America's deplorable image in the Arab and Muslim world? Has she merely come on a mission to "explore" the situation and spread around a little of her dubious charm?
These questions are legitimate because, as even the most casual observer will have noted, the Middle East has rarely been in such a dangerously volatile state. The following are just some of the most immediate threats.
- There are persistent reports out of Washington picked up and amplified in the American press that the United States is preparing to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear facilities. In normal circumstances, such naked aggression would be hardly credible. It would be an act of insanity which would set the whole region on fire. But we are not living in normal times.
There is such paranoia in the United States and Israel about Iran's nuclear programme that anything is possible, even the unthinkable. In any event, the US is being permanently blackmailed by the threat that if it does not attack Iran, Israel will do so.
- Iraq is in the throes of a vicious sectarian civil war, which is getting worse by the day and which is complicated by large-scale "ethnic cleansing". In danger of indiscriminate slaughter, people are fleeing from areas of mixed population to the relative safety of their coreligionist. Having smashed the Iraqi state, the United States does not know whether to leave or to stay and does not seem able to do either with any degree of clarity or resolve.
- Thanks to Israel's cruel repression and also to the irreconcilable rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, and especially in Gaza, is on the very edge of a catastrophic explosion.
The dreadful misery of the population besieged, starved and murdered on a daily basis by Israeli air and artillery strikes is a terrible stain on the conscience of the world and particularly of the United States, Israel's chief backer.
- Lebanon is still struggling to recover from Israel's 33-day assault. The tragedy is that the war has not united the nation. The various factions and sectarian groupings are once again at each other's throats with the ever present threat of a return to civil war.
The crisis demonstrates yet again the weakness of the Lebanese state, plagued by the confessional system on which it rests. Lebanon needs radical political reform and a renewal of its political leadership, but who can do the job? Not, it would seem, the men now in power.
- The three tracks of the Arab-Israeli peace process Israel-Palestine, Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon are all frozen, with no prospect of movement in sight.
These are just some of the urgent problems confronting Rice on her visit to the region. The United States itself and its Israeli ally are directly involved in most of these problems, indeed are largely responsible for creating them. So what is she going to do?
Will she insist that Israel stop murdering innocent Palestinian civilians; stop expanding its colonies; and commit itself to the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state? Nothing could be further from her mind.
Will she reassure the Gulf leaders that America has no intention of attacking Iran and endangering the flow of oil which is their lifeblood? Certainly not. Bush himself has said that the military option is on the table.
Does she understand that Syria needs to be assured that it will recover the Golan Heights before it commits itself to a stabilising role? Has she grasped that Iran has certain legitimate concerns and ambitions? Does she recognise that Hezbollah is a resistance movement representing about a quarter of Lebanon's population? Without Hezbollah, Israel would still be occupying southern Lebanon, as it did for 22 years.
None of these seem to be Condoleezza Rice's concerns or priorities. Before she left Washington, a State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, spelled out her vision of things. Contrary to popular belief, he explained, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was not at the heart of the Middle East crisis.
The defining issue today was the struggle between "moderates" and "extremists". Rice saw her main task as urging the moderates to unite against the extremists.
In plain language, this means that the US secretary of state's mission is to attempt to mobilise Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States against Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. This may be what Israel and its friends are demanding, but it is not what the United States should do. It will not resolve the region's old conflicts, only create new ones.
Perhaps Rice would have done better to stay at home.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.