“A true patriot who has answered the call to serve time and again, George Mitchell has had an impressive career. He has served admirably through his tireless work to broker peace in the Middle East. Although he is stepping down from this role, the mission will continue, and George Mitchell’s diligence, patience and intelligence will have helped pave the way toward a lasting peace. The citizens of Maine, and the world, are proud of his great work.” – Sen. Susan Collins

In her statement after the announcement that George Mitchell was stepping down as President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, Sen. Susan Collins encapsuled Mitchell’s amazing legacy in 77 carefully chosen, understated words.

He is a true patriot, Collins said, and she referenced his diligence, patience and intelligence.

No news there, but surely confirmation of what Mitchell’s fellow Mainers have always known and the rest of the world has learned over the years: George J. Mitchell Jr. is a great American, a devoted and resourceful diplomat, a man who has honored, sustained and enhanced our state’s long tradition of public service.

A native of Waterville, Mitchell served Maine and America as a United States senator and later negotiated the historic Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland. He investigated steroid abuse in Major League Baseball, and his exhaustive report resulted in sweeping reforms to the game’s policies on performance-enhancing drugs.

In the private sector, he served as chairman of the Walt Disney Co., helping to reinvigorate the Disney management structure after boardroom turmoil threatened the legendary entertainment conglomerate’s financial stability and damaged the company’s public image.

Shortly after taking office in 2009, President Obama asked Mitchell to negotiate peace in the Middle East. He selflessly accepted the challenging assignment and worked tirelessly to find common ground between Israelis and Palestinians. No agreement was achieved, and when Mitchell announced last week that he was resigning as special envoy, critics were quick to say, in effect, “mission not accomplished.”

But Collins made a point that many pundits seemed to miss. Mitchell’s efforts may well “have helped pave the way toward a lasting peace.”

Cockeyed optimism? Wishful thinking? False hope?

Maybe.

But Mitchell’s diplomatic style is one of quiet persuasiveness that lends itself to long-term effectiveness, not instant gratification or overnight success. The two-plus years he spent shuttling back and forth to the Middle East as special envoy equate to the blink of an eye in the decades-old quest for a peace agreement in that part of the world. Other envoys have tried and failed, as have secretaries of state, presidents and the occasional freelance negotiator. It could be that the task is simply too difficult for anyone to accomplish.

But George Mitchell isn’t just anyone. He brings a special sensibility, a unique trustworthiness, to such diplomacy. It would be a mistake to dismiss his efforts in this case as “largely fruitless,” as one news report characterized his service.

It would be ridiculously premature to draw such a conclusion now, before the next chapter of Middle East history is written. No one can know what wheels Mitchell may have set in motion, what seeds of conciliation he may have sown that could ultimately result in a harvest of peace.

Unlike so many who succeed in politics and public life, Mitchell is defined as much by his soft-spoken humility as by his remarkable achievements. It would not be in his nature to call a news conference and boast of the inroads he made toward peace over the past two years. It would not be in his nature to predict future victories as he leaves the arena.

So we’ll do it for him. Knowing nothing except that George Mitchell rarely fails, we will hazard a guess that if peace is somehow achieved in the Middle East, those who finalize the process will look back and say, as Sen. Collins suggested, that George Mitchell paved the way.