As he embarks on his grand tour of the Middle East, US President George W. Bush is about to set a new presidential record by visiting so many countries in so short a time. (Although his final schedule is not known, he is expected to visit at least 10 countries). In some countries, he will be the first US president to call on a state visit.
But what is this visit for?
Cynics would suggest that Bush is looking for photo opportunities that might add some spice to his future memoirs. More generous commentators might see the tour as the continuation of an American tradition.
All US presidents since Woodrow Wilson have dreamed of themselves as peacemakers and tried to help others sort out ancient disputes.
Both assessments may be true. After all, why shouldn't Bush look for a photo opportunity, and why shouldn't he try his luck at peacemaking? There are, however, at least two reasons why those assessments are inadequate.
The first is that the greater Middle East is no longer a distant region whose importance to the United States stemmed from its oil reserves and strategic location in the context of big power rivalries and, later, the Cold War.
Over the past three decades, US dependence on Middle East oil has dropped steadily while American imports of crude have almost doubled. As for geo-strategic factors, the end of the Cold War spelled the end of the Middle East as a big prize in the race between the Free World and the Soviet bloc.
Instead, the Middle East has emerged as the chief source of threat to US national security in the context of a new global struggle between the established order and its challengers often acting in the name of this or that version of Islam.
Successive US administration failed to see this radical transformation which begun in the 1970s. Even the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran and the seizing of its diplomats as hostages failed to convince Washington that something important was going on in the Middle East.
The 9/11 attacks shook the US out of its illusions about the region.
Since President Franklin Roosevelt, US policy in the Middle East had been aimed at preserving the status quo.
Each time the US intervened in the region - from the Marines landing in Lebanon and Jordan in the 1950s to the expulsion of Saddam Hussain's armies from occupied Kuwait, Washington's aim had been to maintain as much of the status quo as possible.
That policy's failure, illustrated by the emergence of pro-Soviet Arab regimes in the 1950s and the 1960s, the Communist seizure of power in Afghanistan in 1977, and the Khomeinist revolution in Iran in 1979 did not persuade Washington that a different analysis might be required.
Bush realised that it was the very status quo that the US had helped preserve that had produced its deadliest foes.
He became the first US president to adopt an anti-status quo, not to say revolutionary, posture towards the Middle East.
Bush backed his words with deeds by taking military action to remove two of the region's most vicious regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also exerted pressure on other countries, including some allies, to change aspects of their domestic and/or foreign policies.
The upshot of all this is that the status quo has been shattered. However, the US has not been the sole, or as some argue, even the main beneficiary.
Leaving aside the people of Afghanistan and Iraq who have had a chance to taste freedom from tyranny, the first beneficiary has been the Islamic Republic in Iran.
In 2001 it found itself caught in a pincer represented by the Taliban regime in Kabul and the Baathist regime in Baghdad. The Afghan mullahs challenged the Iranian mullahs on religious grounds.
The Baathists tried to mobilise pan-Arab nationalism against Khomeinism. The fall of the two regimes that challenged Tehran's claims of supremacy in the region has enabled the Khomeinists to revive their hegemonic ambitions as never before.
Other beneficiaries include Russia, India, China and Uzbekistan all of whom were involved in a deadly struggle against armed Islamists. The fall of the Taliban and the destruction of Al Qaida's network in Afghanis-tan have led to the gradual demise of terrorist groups in Chechnya, Kashmir, Xingjian and the Ferghana Valley.
Freed from the Chechnyan albatross, Vladimir Putin's Russia has revived its big power ambitions in Central Asia and the Middle East. The end of the Muslim revolt in Xingjian has enabled China not only to develop that oil-rich region but also to attract massive Arab investment.
India has been similarly freed of the cross it had to bear in Kashmir, allowing it to reduce defence expenditure for the first time in half a century and to focus on economic development.
With no more mujahedin coming from Afghanistan, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has been able to restore his control over the Ferghana for the first time since 1990.
Europe, along with Japan, has also benefited, if only because the Saddamite and Al Qaida threats to a region that provides some 60 per cent of their oil imports has receded.
The problem in all this, however, is that while the old status quo has been shattered a new one has not taken shape yet. The struggle against the enemies of new Afghanistan and Iraq may continue for many more years. Under a new administration, the US may decide that it lacks the stamina needed to shape a new status quo.
A US withdrawal before a new balance of power has been put in place could transform Iran and Russia into arbiters of the region's future.
It is possible that the State Department in Washington designed Bush's final tour of the region as a signal that the US is satisfied with the half-built status quo in the Middle East.
This is why the focus is put on the Israel-Palestine conflict that, its intrinsic importance not withstanding, is of little consequence in the broader struggle for a new Middle East.
The president's tour could acquire a positive meaning only if it is used to shape a new alliance for reform, progress and democratisation as the chief guarantor of peace and security in the Middle East.
Such an alliance would challenge the hegemonic ambitions of both Iran, offering an obscurantist agenda, and Russia which hopes to play a neo-imperial game.
Under Bush the US has helped change the Middle East. It would be odd, to say the least, if America's principal adversaries end up as the chief beneficiaries of that change.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian writer based in Europe.