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Pursue peace talks Bush's push for a Mideast conference focuses effort on Palestinian conflict

The only thing wrong with President Bush's call for a Mideast peace conference is that it comes so late in the game that it looks more like a desperation ploy than a serious effort at finding a solution to a problem that has bedeviled presidents for 60 years.

Bush announced the initiative as part of an effort to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and begin working toward creation of a Palestinian state. It's an important effort, but it was important years ago, when Abbas was fighting for control of the Palestinian government, such as it is, and it was important before Bush embarked on his half-baked plan to invade Iraq and remake the Middle East.

This president has badly fumbled foreign policy, but this effort is worth making, as a way to move forward in the Middle East and also to begin the hard work of restoring this country's reputation. The conference is to be led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and would include, if all accept, representatives from Israel, the Palestinian West Bank and several Arab countries, though they have not yet been named.

Prospects for any kind of success are certainly remote, in light of the failure of every past effort at Middle East peace. Even prospects for its occurrence are questionable, given the skepticism of such nations as Syria and even Israel, which qualified its support on the not-insensible notion that it's hard to talk about peace while Hamas continues to attack Israelis. Hamas would be excluded from the conference.

The plan may, in some ways, be seen as the Bush administration's tacit admission that the war in Iraq was not the miracle cure that administration officials had touted. The theory leading up to the war -- and well after formal combat ended -- was that the United States would help create a functioning democracy in Iraq, at the very center of the dysfunctional Islamic world, and that freedom would flow like honey across the region. It didn't happen.

There were many reasons for that, but one was because the Bush administration bungled the occupation of Iraq, allowing terrorists and insurgents to destabilize the country ever since the initial combat phase of this war ended successfully more than four years ago. That miscalculation is emblematic of this administration's record of incompetence. It is a record that offers little hope for the success of this new effort.

Still, it is important to try, and Rice has shown a pragmatism that is unusual for survivors of this administration. If it doesn't succeed on its own, it may lay the groundwork for future efforts. That's not much, but it may have to be enough.

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