Will President George W. Bush's 11th-hour visit to the Middle East this week deliver more than photo opportunities?
One might be tempted to say no, based on the low expectations that emanate from virtually all directions. With the right effort, though - that is, demonstrating some humility, advancing a future vision for the region and downplaying predictable positions, such as Iran-bashing - the results could be notable.
Admittedly, it is more than a bit ironic that Bush has chosen this moment to show his commitment to regional peacemaking in the Middle East, among other topics. His administration's policies, largely as a result of the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, have produced extreme divisiveness there and around the world.
But as tardy as the president is, it is never too late, no matter what his detractors may claim.
One detractor in particular, al-Qaida, has greeted the Bush tour in its customary, inflammatory, violent manner. The group, labeling Bush a "crusader slayer," has issued a deadly warning not unlike the ones that accompanied former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's return to her country late last year, prior to her assassination. If al-Qaida has its way, this trip will be Bush's last to the region - or anywhere else.
Fortunately, he - like Bhutto - refuses to be swayed by threats that would keep him from necessary work. Indeed, reinforcing the coalition against al-Qaida should be part of Bush's agenda during his stay.
Beyond that, he is not too far along in his final term to take advantage of an opportunity to encourage a true regional settlement. And I am not talking about simply following up on the spirit of last year's Annapolis summit meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as critical as that issue is.
At each stop, Bush should rally support for the next logical step: a round of comprehensive, inclusive, Middle Eastern peace talks that could be scheduled for early summer, perhaps again in Annapolis. My preference, though, would be for such discussions to be held in Madrid, which has hosted successful peacemaking in the past under the co-sponsorship of Washington and Moscow. In addition, Bush should send invitations to the leaders of all other Middle Eastern countries - including Iran, despite its charge that his visit amounts to meddling - as well as to those in Russia and Europe.
Finally, in a nod toward the imminent change in American politics, he should invite the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees to attend.
By promoting such a peace conference, Bush would guarantee more from his trip than photo opportunities and contribute the foundation for a bridge leading away from his administration's legacy of divisiveness.