Bringing together leaders from Iraq and other surrounding nations, the conference in Sharm El-Sheikh had a very busy agenda. The task was momentous and all of the key dignitaries were there. Then a woman in red spoiled it all. According to media reports, that woman appears to have scuttled a much-awaited meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Rice and Iran's foreign minister. Forget about the world of high politics. Now we're in the realm of children's books, where fairies and people dressed in fancy clothes dwell.

According to one version of the story, Foreign Minister Mottaki, who sat across from Rice at the dinner table, had to leave the party after he was offended by the dinner violinist's revealing dress. Rice said later that in any case, she wasn't eager to speak to Mottaki. And one U.S. spokesman quipped that he didn't know whether it was Rice or the violinist that Mottaki was more alarmed by.

The story added comic relief to the horror show that is American foreign policy. The U.S. administration has finally realized that it can't get out of Iraq without the help of Iraq's neighbors, especially Syria and Iran. But the Americans aren't doing much to ease tensions. Even Arab moderates now wonder if the Americans can end Iraq's bloodbath. Neither do they trust the Maliki government to bring the Sunnis back into the fold, disband Shiite militia and end the ethnic cleansing. And when the Americans asked the Saudis to invite Maliki to visit, they flatly refused.

The conference resulted in nothing new. The Iraqi government reiterated the promises it made months ago at a similar conference that was held in Baghdad [on March 10 ]. One is tempted wonder if the conference was merely Bush's way of deflecting criticism at home, but how long will that work? The Americans need to talk to the Iranians and yet Washington is unwilling to let Tehran off the hook. So the plot thickens. Why on earth would Tehran help Washington out in Iraq when the Americans continue talking sanctions and raising hell about Iran's nuclear program?

Before the conference began, the Americans hinted that they wanted to talk to the Iranians about Iraq, but they harangued Tehran about its uranium enrichment program anyway. The Americans didn't even bother to release - or promise to release - the five Iranian diplomats they snatched recently in Arbil . So it wasn't just a revealing red dress that scuttled the talks.

Iraq remains caught in a vicious circle - or between a U.S. rock and an Iranian hard place. And Arab countries have nothing to brag about after their performance at Sharm El-Sheikh. The one exception is Syria. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem held talks with Rice on security cooperation and halting arms shipments and infiltrators into Iraq. The Syrians want to normalize ties but still insist on a timetable for American withdrawal from Iraq. Still, a new page is about to turn in U.S.-Syrian relations.

One reason for the sudden rapprochement is that Washington wants to disconnect Damascus from Tehran. But ties between Iran and Syria are too strong to be weakened by one U.S. gesture. In their relations with Saudi Arabia and the E.U., the Syrians are also making progress, and have just invited Prince Saud Al-Faysal and Javier Solana to visit.

Tor both the Americans and the Iraqi government, the Sharm El-Sheikh conference bought a bit of time. Prime Minister Maliki has made some promises but no one knows who or what to believe.

The Americans could have taken the occasion to set a timetable for withdrawal, but instead they gave us a fairy tale about a woman in red.