SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt—When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived at a hotel restaurant for dinner here Thursday evening with the world's leading diplomats, the man who was supposed to be seated across from her, Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki, had just left the building.
Mottaki blamed the non-encounter on the entertainment—a female Ukrainian violinist whose red dress, he told reporters, offended "Islamic standards." Rice blamed Mottaki. "I'm not given to chasing anyone," she told reporters.
But at a critical moment for Iraq's future, the failure to start serious talks with Iran on cooperation to contain the Iraq civil war could be a metaphor for the Bush administration's repeated attempts to rescue its policy from disaster.
The four years since President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" have been a legacy of missed opportunities, ineffectual plans, surges and course corrections that have always been too late, too late or both, critics say.
Now it is 2007, and "everybody's got a plan. And none of it is memorable," said Judith Yaphe, a veteran Persian Gulf analyst at the National Defense University in Washington.
With 20 months left in Bush's term, his Iraq policy may be at its final crossroads, with little time to show progress and big questions on three fronts.
The president and the Democratic-controlled Congress are sparring over a new bill to fund U.S. forces in Iraq, following Bush's veto this past week of legislation that contained a timetable for withdrawing American forces.
Militarily, the "surge" of additional U.S. troops into Iraq, now well under way, has failed to dent the overall level of violence.
On the diplomatic front, Rice engineered a course change that positions Washington to negotiate with Syria and perhaps even Iran, two of Iraq's important neighbors. But it remains to be seen whether the U-turn is in time to make a difference.
Iranian and Syrian support for U.S. goals could help curb the foreign fighters, weapons and cash infiltrating from those two countries to support Shiite Muslim militants and Sunni insurgents. If Saudi Arabia, many of whose citizens sympathize with Iraqi Sunni minority, were fully on board, it would send a political signal that no country in the region wants the internal war to continue.
Although many countries announced plans to forgive Iraq's debt, the neighbors didn't rally in common cause during the two-day conference in this Red Sea resort city. Saudi Arabia's Sunni royal family has been cool to the Shiite Muslim-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seeing it as a proxy for Iran.
This was at least the fourth such meeting on Iraq, stretching back to a post-war conference in Madrid in October 2003. None has had a tangible impact on the violence and instability there.
The lack of progress may account for the unusual announcement midway through the talks here that Vice President Dick Cheney, who's not known as a champion of diplomacy, will travel to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates starting Tuesday. His aim is to see what more can be done to stabilize Iraq and ensure that the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad succeeds, a spokeswoman said.
A great deal was at stake in the talks in the Egyptian Red Sea resort.
Rice summed up on the second day: "If we simply sit here only to meet again with nothing having happened ... than the world will rightly judge us badly.
"If Iraq fails to achieve these goals of stability and democracy, we will all pay."
In this atmosphere, Rice took a small step forward, opening lines of communication with Syria and Iran. The Bush administration has for years tried to isolate those two countries.
She met with her Syrian counterpart, Walid Moallem, to discuss Iraq, the first high-level U.S.-Syrian encounter in more than two years. The new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and Rice aide David Satterfield had a brief, three-minute hallway encounter with a top Iranian diplomat on Friday. The United States and Iran haven't had diplomatic relations since 1979.
But the outreach appeared tentative, and it came nearly five months after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group urged Bush to use aggressive diplomacy with Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq.
Rice's decision to proceed with the two meetings came after heavy lobbying by the Iraqis, who say they're weary of having their country serve as a battleground for outsiders, American and Iranian, Sunni and Shiite.
"Iraq turned into an arena where regional conflicts are resolved, which presents a heavy weight on transforming the political process of the country. ... We request an end to be put to this atmosphere and that Iraq's sovereignty is respected," Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said in a huge meeting hall filled with 60 delegations.
U.S. officials said the two days of meetings went a long way toward easing suspicions among Iraq's neighbors.
The highlight was the launching of an International Compact for Iraq, a five-year plan for increased foreign assistance in return for economic changes and serious attempts at political reconciliation by al-Maliki's government.
But at this late stage, for real progress to be made, almost everything would have to go right in Iraq.
Iran and Syria would have to close their borders, and Saudi Arabia would have to end its cool attitude toward the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq.
Al-Maliki's government would have to make genuine efforts to reach a political deal that reconciles Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, while curbing sectarian militias.
And the Iraqi parliament would have to pass long-delayed legislation to divide Iraq's oil revenues equitably.
"We have reached a critical juncture," Salih, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, said in a brief interview. "We cannot afford to lose. And we cannot afford to give people false expectations."
(Staff writer Ron Hutcheson contributed and special correspondent Miret el-Naggar contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.