Secretary of State George Shultz has the delicate mission of trying to salvage some portion of the US Mideast policy at a time when the entire policy seems in imminent danger of splitting apart.
In a region where appearances count for a lot, the United States appears woefully on the defensive, its Reagan peace initiative blocked by the inability of key actor Jordan to join peace talks, and its bombed Beirut embassy lying in tragic ruins.
The Shultz visit itself, coming at a time when the Lebanon situation is murky rather than, as had earlier been hoped, when the essential elements of an Israel-Lebanon agreement were already in place, has elements of the desperate as well as of the determined.
The secretary's itinerary is open-ended after his initial three days in Cairo , followed by meetings in Israel beginning on Wednesday. During the trip, he will have to confront:
* A deadlock in Israel-Lebanon negotiations on terms for a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon - Mr. Shultz's top priority - after the talks appeared to be on the verge of success.
* Clear signals from Syria, which has the power to veto any Israeli-Lebanese agreement by refusing to withdraw its troops from Lebanon - that its wishes cannot be ignored.
* A cold reception from some moderate Arab leaders to President Reagan's hint - in an effort to revive his peace plan - that the US and moderate Arab states should move forward regardless of opposition from the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Mr. Shultz's first priority is to try to rescue the Lebanon talks.
The deadlock in the Lebanon negotiations comes as a bitter setback. Both Israeli and US officials had believed only 10 days ago that major obstacles had been significantly softened if not yet fully overcome. Then came the explosion at the US Embassy in Beirut.
Although the perpetrators have not yet been definitively identified, Israeli sources believe them to be Syrian-inspired in an effort to warn Lebanon's government that not even the US can protect President Amin Gemayel's regime if he signs a pact that is not to Syria's liking.