Politics & Policy

To Syria with Love

Nancy Pelosi tends to forget that there is an executive branch. She and her Democrats recently passed legislation trying to mandate the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by September 2008 — as though the armed forces reported not to President Bush, but to 535 congressional commanders in chief. This week, Pelosi seems to want 535 secretaries of State as well.

That’s how it looks, anyway, based on her visit to Syria. She was in Damascus yesterday buying coconut sweets and figs — and preparing for her meeting with Bashar al-Assad, Baathist dictator and terrorist patron extraordinaire. It’s not uncommon for members of Congress to travel abroad and meet foreign heads of state, and Pelosi is within her rights. But she could hardly have chosen a better way to undermine U.S. foreign policy.

It’s no secret that the White House didn’t want her to go, and for good reason: Syria is practically a charter member of the “Death to the West” club. Along with Iran, from which it gets its foreign-policy marching orders, it aims to uproot from the Middle East such pernicious weeds as American influence and political liberalism. It contributes significantly to the bloodletting in Iraq by allowing terrorists freely to cross its border with that country. For its neighbors on the Levant it reserves a special malice: Hamas’s senior leadership finds sanctuary within its borders; it is a principal backer of Hezbollah; and it continues to work aggressively toward Lebanon’s implosion.

Assad’s regime is, in short, a nasty piece of work. It was more than a little odd, then, to hear Pelosi announcing her “great hope” that her trip would “build the confidence” between the two nations. Unrequited goodwill does not a foreign policy make. Pelosi’s naïveté recalls that of the Baker-Hamilton commission, which daftly encouraged the U.S. to engage Iran and Syria diplomatically so that they would — cue miracle — help stabilize Iraq. Why they would do this went unexplained, probably because it is unexplainable. Tehran and Damascus’s ceaseless aggression makes it clear that they do not think the U.S. will be a lasting power in the Middle East, and do not believe they need to fear it.

Only after these assumptions are disproved will Iran and Syria rethink their positions. That’s why Bush’s strategy has been to isolate them and maximize pressure on their regimes: The idea is that there may come a point at which they decide the costs of fighting the U.S. are greater than the costs of cooperating with it. Any visit to Syria by any U.S. official slackens this pressure, and all the more so when the official is no less than the Speaker of the House. It sends the signal that half of America’s political class is willing to reward Assad’s provocations with a photo-op. “Don’t bother changing, Mr. President,” she may as well tell him, “since that cowboy will be out of the Oval Office in a 21 short months.” Pelosi’s trip is even worse coming as it does after her refusal to let the House vote before its recess on a resolution condemning Iran’s kidnapping of 15 British sailors and marines.

In fairness, some of the blame for undercutting America’s position in the Middle East rests across the House aisle. A small number of Republicans wants to surrender in Iraq, and three Republican congressmen — Frank Wolf, Joe Pitts, and Robert Aderholt — recently had their own powwow with Assad in Syria. (Indeed, Pelosi defended herself by citing their visit; the Bush administration rightly criticized all parties.) Wolf excused himself with a historically illiterate comparison: Ronald Reagan talked to Mikhail Gorbachev, he said, so why not talk to Assad? Answer: Gorbachev, unlike Assad, had made it clear that he was a reformer before Reagan talked to him.

A few foolish Republicans can do only so much damage. Pelosi, on the other hand, has a majority, and it is doing its best to raise the white flag over the Middle East. We can’t believe that a majority of Americans — impatient though they are with the Iraq War — thought they were voting for this last November. By the time they have a chance to issue an electoral corrective, however, it may be too late.


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