While the Bush administration has worked to suppress expectations for the Middle East peace conference Tuesday in Annapolis, observers say the professional and political stakes for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are much harder to minimize.
An outcome resembling success could restore some of the former Stanford professor's diplomatic credibility, they say, and perhaps add a line to her career's postscript that doesn't contain the word "Iraq."
Something less than success could extinguish whatever progress she has fostered as the president's top diplomat in the past three years, and perhaps worsen relations with a part of the world considered vital to American security and foreign policy.
"She's about a year or so away from being judged as a kind of inconsequential secretary of state," said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert and adviser to six secretaries of state, and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
"The way you become consequential in this business is by taking a tough issue, owning it and making it better," Miller said, naming Henry A. Kissinger and James A. Baker III among the model secretaries of state. "Annapolis alone isn't enough, but if they and we are prepared to do the heavy lifting over the next year, it could be an opportunity."
With 14 months to go before a new president takes office, Rice has chosen to wade into a diplomatic arena that has bested many of her predecessors. She will serve as the official host for the Annapolis conference, facilitating meetings among delegates and presiding over a dinner for them. Bush will also take part, but Rice has taken the lead role.
Though cautioning against considering the meetings "peace talks," she presented the gathering as "a very big step forward" in Middle East politics, and the first round of "continuous, ongoing and very intensive" talks that could lead to a Palestinian state.
And yet many foreign policy specialists already expect much less. Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the liberal Institute for Policy Studies, released a paper suggesting that the Annapolis conference has two goals: buying Arab support for American military threats in the region, and offering "a photo op to restore Rice's tarnished legacy."
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the left-leaning political journal The Nation, wrote that the conference has "more to do with providing [Rice] a much-needed photo op ... than creating the groundwork for a just and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis."
The skepticism has not been strictly ideological. Rice's former Bush administration colleague, John R. Bolton, called the conference a "legacy project" for Rice during a recent interview with bloggers, and added: "Every indication is it's going to be a failure by whatever standard you choose to measure."
Miller said he thinks many critics are too quick to dismiss the meetings as a stunt. While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas are not as politically strong as one would like in such negotiations, he said, at least they are willing to talk with each other. And while achieving a peace agreement by the end of Bush's term is probably unrealistic, he said, if Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in serious discussions about peace next year because of Annapolis, then Rice will have left the situation in far better shape than when she took office in early 2005.
Still, others think the costs of failure could be high - and might even include bloodshed.
"To the extent that her actions are raising unwarranted expectations on the part of Palestinians and their Arab friends, past practice suggests it will translate into a pretext for new violence against Israel," wrote Frank Gaffney Jr., founder and president of the conservative Center for Security Policy, in an essay on the center's Web site.
Bolton, a Republican appointed United Nations ambassador by Bush in 2005 but never confirmed by the U.S. Senate, said that he "can't imagine a worse time to hold this kind of conference."
"If there is a conference and it fails, we are not simply in the status quo that we had before," Bolton said during a Web-based question-and-answer session. "We are in a worse position, because it will show a decline in American influence, a failure in a very visible way. I wish we weren't doing this at all."