A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To Syria

I'm in a work cycle here, so it's been hard to understand exactly what happened when Nancy Pelosi went to Syria. I know what a lot of partisan people are saying about it, on both sides of the aisle, and seeing where my seat is situated, I know who I think has the more solid take on the matter.

Still I don't want to pass judgment just yet. I'm quite willing to believe that the Speaker is capable of making a mistake. She definitely did when she supported John Murtha over Steny Hoyer for House Majority Leader. But that was a good mistake; it showed how loyal she could be to a friend. In the end, Hoyer won the vote handily, and though it was hard to see Murtha up there behind the podium, still he was there, and it was because of Pelosi. Mistakes like that we need more of.

Let us gather the facts, if we can find them. And let's be as basic as we can about the facts, starting with this one: Nancy Pelosi has just recently been on a trip to Israel and Syria.

During the trip, on March 30th, Speaker Pelosi's office released this statement:
As recommended by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan delegation led by Speaker Pelosi intends to discuss a wide range of security issues affecting the United States and the Middle East with representatives of governments in the region, including Syria.
Pelosi's press release reads like it is a response to the comments made by the White House:
Q Dana, the Speaker of the House is traveling to Syria next week. Wondering what the White House's view on that is.

MS. PERINO: Well, as you know, we do not encourage -- in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria. This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror, one that is trying to disrupt the Siniora government in Lebanon, and one that is allowing foreign fighters to flow into Iraq from its borders. And so we don't think it's productive to go to Syria and try to -- well, I don't know what she's trying to accomplish. I don't believe that anyone in the administration has spoken to her about it. But in general we do discourage such trips.

Q So specifically on this one -- this will be the highest-ranking U.S. official to go to Syria since the Hariri assassination, even before that, and apparently she's going to meet with President Assad. Would you have a specific message to the Speaker of the House about meeting with President Assad at a time when the administration has even withdrawn our ambassador from Damascus?

MS. PERINO: Well, again, I don't know if anyone has spoken to the Speaker. I do think that, as a general rule -- and this would go for Speaker of the House Pelosi and this apparent trip that she is going to be taking -- that we don't think it's a good idea. We think that someone should take a step back and think about the message that it sends, and the message that it sends to our allies. I'm not sure what the hopes are to -- what she's hoping to accomplish there. I know that Assad probably really wants people to come and have a photo opportunity and have tea with him, and have discussions about where they're coming from, but we do think that's a really bad idea.

...Q Dana, normally when a congressional leader goes on a trip, no matter what party they're in, they consult with the State Department. Were there any consultations between her and --

MS. PERINO: I don't know. I just learned about this trip right before I came out here. We'll check. Our initial check was that nobody was aware of any discussions, but we'll confirm and let you know.

Q Do you know, did anyone from the White House try to dissuade her from going on this trip?

MS. PERINO: As far as I know, we just found about it. I just found about it.
So at this point, the White House doesn't know if the State Department talked to the Pelosi group, but in general, they say, they discourage people from going. It sends a bad message. It only gives President Assad a photo opportunity.

The State Department, same day, about an hour and a half later:


QUESTION: Nancy Pelosi is visiting Syria. The White House criticized her decision to go. I was wondering what you think of this. And it's my understanding that the Bush Administration tried to dissuade her from visiting Syria at this time, didn't think it would be appropriate.


QUESTION: Can you speak to that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we've -- you know, our message both to Republicans and Democrats alike who either have visited Syria in this recent period or intend to, as Speaker Pelosi does, has been consistent, it's been the same. In our view, it's not the right time to have those sort of high-profile visitors to Syria mostly for the simple fact that the Syrians, despite a number of different pleas and approaches from the United States as well as other countries, have refused to change their behavior vis-à-vis support for Palestinian rejectionist groups, for their support for -- their unhelpful stance with respect to Lebanon. And we don't think it would be appropriate for high-level visitors, even those from the Congress, to pay a visit to Syria right now.

A typical Syrian MO on this is to use these visits to tell the rest of the world and say, "Look, there's nothing wrong. We're having all these visitors come to Syria, coming to Damascus, there's no problem with our behavior," and they point to the visits as proof that there is no problem with their behavior and that they are not, in fact, isolated. So that's the simple reason why we have encouraged others as well as Speaker Pelosi not to travel.

That said, congressmen and representatives are going to make their own decisions about where they travel. And in this case, they made the decision to go forward. We are going to provide all the support that might normally be expected to be provided to a member of Congress traveling to a foreign country. We provided a briefing for Speaker Pelosi's staff and those traveling with her. So that's about -- that's really where we stand right now.

QUESTION: Will anyone from State be accompanying Speaker Pelosi?


QUESTION: Sometimes, you send along a little help (inaudible).

MR. MCCORMACK: A little help --


MR. MCCORMACK: Not to my knowledge, not to my knowledge. Of course, other people on the ground are ready to assist the congressional delegation in setting up meetings and even attending those meetings if that's what the congressional delegation wants.

QUESTION: But Ellen Sauerbrey was there and --

MR. MCCORMACK: A very specific mission dealing with the humanitarian issue of Iraqi refugees and she went in -- talked to somebody at her level, her counterpart on a very limited scope mission.


QUESTION: Just to sort of -- has there been a presidential or vice presidential visit to Syria?

MR. MCCORMACK: To Syria? When?

QUESTION: Has there been?



MR. MCCORMACK: I'm going to look over here. George. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Jimmy Carter met with President Asad, I think in Geneva. So did --

QUESTION: So did Clinton.

MR. MCCORMACK: In Geneva. And Secretary [Madeline] Albright, I know, visited there for the funeral and then --

QUESTION: [Warren] Christopher --

QUESTION: Christopher went a couple of times.

MR. MCCORMACK: [James] Baker's been there numerous times.

QUESTION: Even Sean McCormack, I think might have been to Damascus once or twice. Is that true?

MR. MCCORMACK: I made one trip there, yeah. Not that that's important. (Laughter.)
I include the last part to show just exactly what a big deal the Speaker in Damascus is. The last high ranking official to go to Damascus was actually Secretary Powell , who was there in 2003. But since then, the Bush Administration has not been too happy about anybody meeting with Syria.

The meetings have happened, though. It seems recently the floodgates have opened. On March 30th, three Republican representatives were already in Israel getting ready to go to Damascus.

The Assistant Secretary of State had gone to Damascus earlier in March, as the briefing above points out, on a limited-scope mission.

The US had even sat down with Syria in multilateral talks about Iraq that month - in Baghdad.

A few months earlier, in December 2006, Arlen Specter had gone to Damascus. Arlen's been there a few times, and most notably was in Damascus the day that the former President Bush had begun dropping bombs on Baghdad:
Mr. Specter, who visited Syria despite loud objections from the Bush administration, did not say what conditions Mr. Assad gave for restarting talks with the Israelis. Syrian officials were not available for comment.

Mr. Specter's visit came on the heels of trips to Damascus by Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

A bipartisan panel on Iraq recommended earlier this month that the United States engage Syria, Iraq's neighbor, toward returning stability to Iraq.

The United States has limited diplomatic ties with Syria because of its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, which the United States deems terrorist organizations. President Bush has expressed reluctance to seek help from Damascus on Iraq until the Syrians curb that support and reduce their influence in Lebanon.

...Mr. Specter said before he left that he and other Republicans are concerned that the administration's policies in the Middle East are not working and that other GOP members may follow in his footsteps.
And the day after Pelosi's visit, Darrell Issa would meet with Assad as well.

A name or two keeps popping up here: James Baker and the Iraqi Study Group. Hold onto that.

On the 31st, Pelosi and the bipartisan delegation met with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. While meeting with him, Olmert spoke to Pelosi about Syria and the peace process.

Pelosi left that meeting, intending to communicate a clear message to Syria:
Pelosi has said she will tell Syrian leaders that Israel will talk peace with them only if Syria stops supporting Palestinian militants. She has said she will also talk to the Syrians about Iraq, their role in neighboring Lebanon and their support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants.
On April 1st, she met with Israel's acting president Dalia Itzik, who defended the idea of Pelosi going to Syria:
"Your expected visit to Damascus has naturally touched off a political debate in your country, and of course, here," Itzik said in televised remarks.

"I believe in your worthy intentions. Perhaps a step, seen as unpopular at this stage ... will clarify to the Syrian people and leadership they must abandon the axis of evil (and) stop supporting terrorism and giving shelter to (terrorist) headquarters," said Itzik, a member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's centrist Kadima party.

...Pelosi, who met Olmert earlier in the day, held aloft during her dinner speech in parliament replicas of the dog-tags of the three captive [Israeli] soldiers.

"They (the dog-tags) are in my office, I carry them with me today, with the promise that we must never rest until they are all safely at home. And yes, I will mention this to the president of Syria," said Pelosi, the top House Democrat.
On April 4, Pelosi flew into Damascus. An Australian network filed this report, before the Speaker had met with Assad:
KIM LANDERS: But should the Democrats be dabbling in US foreign policy?

Charles Kupchan is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: The Democrats are making an assault on President Bush's monopoly over foreign policy in the United States, both through legislation, on getting troops out of Iraq, and now also conducting their own independent diplomacy by heading to the Middle East and meeting not just with the Syrians, but a host of other countries.

KIM LANDERS: He says Nancy Pelosi is picking up on the recommendations of the independent Iraq Study Group, which recommended engaging with Iraq's neighbours, including Syria.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: If we could find some way of having a working relationship with the Syrians, that would help us in Iraq, particularly on Anbar province, which is where the al-Qaeda network is still alive and well, and that's an area that's very close to the Syrian border.

KIM LANDERS: But Robert Lieber, who's a Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University, has doubts about the merits of the senior Democrat's trip.

ROBERT LIEBER: There are real grounds for concern about the appropriateness of this, given the role that Syria has played and the fact that any number of political actors and sometimes government officials have had their pocket picked, in policy terms, in travelling to Syria to meet with the elder or now younger Assad.

It's a dicey game.

KIM LANDERS: By asserting themselves on the foreign policy stage, are the Democrats showing too much ambition?

ROBERT LIEBER: Possibly, yes.

I think there is a very important piece of information we don't know. We don't know what Nancy Pelosi is going to say to the Syrians.

If she delivers a smart, tough message, which I would think some of the key figures in Democratic foreign policy making would want her to do, that's one thing. If on the other hand she delivers something that is fatuous or which seems overly indulgent to the Syrians, or inclined to take Bashar Assad at his word, then I think the impact of the visit will be counterproductive and even destructive in policy terms.

ELEANOR HALL: Professor Robert Lieber speaking to Kim Landers in Washington.
Professor Lieber appears to have not been paying attention to Nancy Pelosi. Every indication from her was a smart, tough message. I mean, she had replicas of the Israeli soldiers' dogtags around her neck.

But the ink seems to be already dry on the script of how Pelosi's visit would be played.

There's more to this story, much more. But I fear it must wait till tomorrow.

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