The Bush administration is continuously stone-walling against any suggestions, from any source, local or international, to start a dialogue with Syria and Iran, probably the quickest and safest way to bring the Middle East, now seen perched on the edge of a volcano, back to normalcy.

Its rationale for burying its head in the sand is unfathomable even by its best friends.

The Iraq Study Report had offered a "new approach" for the "way forward", for the failed American policy as highlighted in the subtitles of the published findings reached by respected former US officials led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Congressman Lee H. Hamilton.

Although it acknowledged that dealing with Syria and Iran is "controversial", the report recommended that the Bush administration "should engage directly with Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment to constructive policies towards Iraq and other regional issues". It proposed that the US should consider "incentives as well as disincentives, in seeking constructive results".

But last Tuesday the State Department continued to maintain, much to the chagrin of several US legislators and others, that this approach is "counterproductive" despite the Study's argument that Syria could make a "major contribution" to Iraq's stability in several ways", primarily controlling its long borders with its neighbour.

In a just published opinion, co-chairman Hamilton said that "one of the most troubling development in American foreign policy is an increasing reluctance to pursue diplomacy ... and the situation has grown worse".

What seems to have puzzled the former Congressman was the fact that the US has for half a century talked to the Soviet Union which he described as "a government that supported the destruction of the capitalist system, and had the capacity to destroy the entire world ... Yet we negotiated".

In a lengthy presentation, Syria's Ambassador to the US, Dr Imad Moustapha, complained to the prestigious World Affairs Council in Washington that his country is "extremely unhappy" about the deteriorated relationship.

He pointed out, however, that immediately after 9/11 the two countries' relationship had "improved dramatically, because yes, we were providing the United States with intelligence and information about Al Qaida and other extremist religious groups - groups that we in Syria have been fighting ferociously against for the past 20 years".

He stressed that his country needs the United States because Syria "believe[s] that the only way peace can be achieved between the Syrians and Israelis is through the good offices of the United States", adding "this is why we cannot afford to have bad relations".

Peace talks

But Moustapha pointed out that when the Israelis recently contemplated resuming peace talks with his country "it was the Bush administration that strongly, ferociously opposed such a revitalisation of the peace process" - a reported move that has puzzled many since a Syrian-Israeli peace and a Palestinian-Israeli settlement would markedly improve the political climate in the region.

(Among members of the Israeli Forum of the Peace Initiative with Syria are former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri).

All eyes in the region will be focused this week on what US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accomplishes during her meeting with members of the Quartet.

However, some of her sparsely discussed ideas for "realignment" of states in the region that want "to contain Iran and its radical Muslim proxies", which surfaced in a newspaper interview, were not very encouraging.

The reported new American effort "to create a de facto alliance between Israel and moderate Arab states against Iranian extremism" will raise many eyebrows, if not more serious reactions. It amounts to setting the cart before the horse.

A warning from Jordan's King Abdullah in an American radio interview underlined the growing concern over half-baked ideas: "If America again moved the peace process forward only half-heartedly, I don't think America will ever be trusted again in the region."

The king further underlined that the emerging Sunni-Shiite conflict, dormant for centuries, has been injected into the regional political vocabulary only since the Second Gulf War, and "the use of it threatens to open a Pandora's box".

There may be more hope in regional attempts at reconciliation as in the reported Saudi Arabia's talks with Iran, its hosting a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas's leaders based in Damascus, and the Arab League efforts to pacify the turbulent situation in Lebanon.

George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at