Once appearing all-powerful after the 1991 Gulf War, American diplomacy in the Middle East has suffered an embarrassing setback that underscores how little the United States now seems able to influence events.
A diplomatic tug of war has been waged in the run-up to the annual Mideast economic conference that opened yesterday here in Doha, capital of the tiny Persian Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar. It is a war that the US has lost.
The summit is the fourth of its kind, meant to bring Arab and Israeli businessmen and international investors together to build the economic foundations for regional peace. But Arab states began months ago to say that their attendance was contingent on progress in the collapsed Middle East peace process.
Washington took up the challenge. But heavy arm-twisting by top American diplomats trying to prevent a widespread Arab boycott - and efforts by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to produce signs of hope during separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in recent days - seem not to have borne fruit.
Instead, diplomats and officials here say, the failure may have exposed a miscalculation on the part of the Clinton administration that it could persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to compromise on tough rhetoric and actions.
Though businessmen of every stripe are here in force and making deals, the list of boycotting Arab governments is long and includes many usually staunch US allies. The ruling sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, whose oil fields some 20,000 US troops are in the Gulf to "protect," and whose country was a base during the 1991 Gulf War, have stayed home.
And Egypt, which enjoys $2.1 billion in American aid and military hardware each year, signed a peace with Israel in 1979, and fought to host last year's summit, is not only staying away, but has actively lobbied for the boycott.
Even as the crisis with Iraq looms larger, the nonsummit in Doha has caused Arab officials and analysts to ponder the direction of US policy.
The result has been the most politicized economic conference to date. "Arabs expected that the US would press Israel for some small thing, but Israel would not play ball," says a Western diplomat. "Morocco especially wanted to come and would have held any little thing up as evidence of 'progress.' But it didn't happen. It has been an eye-opener for the Americans, a setback."
'Time is not on our side'
During a brief presence at the opening session yesterday (cut short by the crisis in Iraq) Ms. Albright put on a brave face. At past meetings, she said, "there was a sense of progress towards the peace in the Middle East that was greater than we feel today.
"Today, the peace process is in danger. Not because the people of the region do not desire peace, but because leaders have failed to take the actions required," she added. "Unfortunately, time is not on our side."
Qatar, the summit host, has been caught in the middle. While other Arab regimes have snubbed Washington, Qatar has stood firm.
"We know we can't play God on this issue, but the boycott sends the wrong signal to the peace camp in Israel: that Arabs can't be trusted," says a senior Qatari official, who asked not to be named. He blames Israel's tough line for giving a steady flow of ammunition to those whose aim has been to sabotage the conference.
But he is equally surprised at the apparent US weakness.
"We didn't expect the Americans to 'deliver' [concessions from] Israel, but they could have used their influence and leverage in a more positive way," he says. "We believe they didn't push that hard, that they played it wrong. "
Diplomats say US unhappiness with the stalled Mideast peace has grown. They point to a growing belief that Israel's right-wing leaders are largely to blame.
An 'immense lack of trust'
Mr. Netanyahu has tried for weeks to arrange a meeting with President Clinton during the prime minister's current visit to the US, but to no avail. And Israeli President Ezer Weizman returned from a US visit a month ago shocked about the "immense lack of trust" he found for Netanyahu among US leaders.
"This thing has descended to the level of personalties," says another Western diplomat. "People [in the region] are so outraged at 'Bibi' Netanyahu that they can't think straight anymore." Albright, he notes, has called for a "time out" of building or expanding of Jewish settlements on occupied Arab territory, but has been regularly defied by Netanyahu.
The diplomatic war has also underlined challenges for Martin Indyk, the new US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. His maiden voyage to Gulf capitals two weeks ago was meant to twist arms. After his visit, Bahrain said it would go to Qatar.
But several days later, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak visited Bahrain, and the sheikhdom changed its tune.