US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has come and gone on her latest visit to the Middle East, but about the only thing she left behind was a trail of confusion and bewilderment.
Prior to Rice's arrival, her trip was billed as an effort to bolster "moderate Arab leaders" in the area. On January 9, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that one of the secretary's goals would be to "support those forces of moderation in the region."
That sounds reasonable enough. After all, the Middle East could certainly use a healthy dose of restraint.
But after watching Ms. Rice's performance over the past few days, it should now be clear that her idea of what constitutes a "moderate Arab leader" is way off the mark, and this should leave us all deeply concerned about the future.
Take, for example, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Rice put forward as a model of moderation.
Standing next to Abbas at a press conference in Ramallah on Sunday, the secretary of state practically gushed with enthusiasm when she said in her opening remarks, "I want everyone to know, particularly the Palestinian people, how much we admire the leadership of President Abbas as a leader of the Palestinian people."
And yet, it was just last Thursday, three days prior to meeting with Rice, that Abbas publicly called upon Palestinians to attack Israel.
SPEAKING at a rally to mark the 42nd anniversary of the founding of Fatah, Abbas told a huge crowd gathered in Ramallah, "With the will and determination of its sons, Fatah will continue. We will not give up our principles and we have said that rifles should be directed against the occupation."
"We have a legitimate right to direct our guns against Israeli occupation," Abbas added.
Is this the kind of "moderation" Rice had in mind?
Indeed, despite Abbas's outrageous call to arms, Rice did not say a word - not a single, solitary word! - about it during her joint press conference with him. She did not see fit to demand a retraction from Abbas of this outrageous invitation to violence, nor did she press him to refrain from inciting further bloodshed.
Instead, Rice chose to heap additional praise on Abbas, telling the assembled journalists that "we've made a lot of progress over recent years, in particular because of the hard work of President Abbas."
What progress is she referring to? To the ongoing Palestinian rocket attacks against southern Israel? To the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit? Or perhaps to the growing popularity of Hamas and Islamic Jihad among the Palestinian electorate?
To be sure, when one compares Abbas with the "genocide now" crowd over at Hamas, he might appear to be a tad bit less extreme. But the gap between "less extreme" and "moderate" is vast, and the two cannot and should not be confused.
AND THEREIN lies the problem with Rice's misguided compliments to Abbas. By embracing him rather than rebuking him, she encouraged the Palestinian leader to believe that he can openly call for violence against Jews without paying any political price for doing so.
Her actions also sent a dangerous message to Palestinians, who might start to think that America's top diplomat sees nothing wrong with their leader's plea to start using their rifles against the Jewish state.
Rice's confused idea of "moderation" was further on display in Egypt, where she met on Monday with Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak and his foreign minister, Aboul Gheit.
Later, at a press conference with Gheit, Rice again had nothing but praise for her hosts, asserting that, "Egypt is really a partner."
What she neglected to mention, of course, was that Mr. Mubarak rules his domain in the finest tradition of the Pharaohs, suppressing dissent, tossing his political opponents into prison, and fixing the outcome of elections to his liking.
Egypt has also allowed untold quantities of weapons to be smuggled freely into Gaza, into the waiting arms of terrorist groups, and it has refused to crack down on the flow of funds to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
We are sure to be treated to a continuation of this spectacle in the coming days, as Rice travels to the Gulf to meet with other "moderates" such as the terror-sponsoring Saudis and some of their Israel-boycotting neighbors.
AND THAT should have us all deeply worried, because the issue of just who is a moderate Arab leader is far more than just one of semantics. It goes to the very root of US foreign policy in the region. For by misidentifying or mischaracterizing various Arab leaders as "moderates,"
Rice and others do real harm to the very cause they seek to advance.
Rather than encouraging moderation, they are in fact unwittingly promoting extremism by failing to call to account leaders such as Abbas, Mubarak and others.
And by blurring the definition of true moderation, they have allowed these men to continue to pursue policies that are antithetical to Israel and the West, all while continuing to bask in the undeserved political support they receive from abroad.
The question of "just who exactly is a moderate Arab leader," and whether any really exist, remains open to debate.
But by conferring this title upon despots and dictators, and those who sponsor terror, the US secretary of state is doing far more damage than good.