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Pelosi at a market in Damascus April 3. She is the highest ranking American politician to visit Syria in the last four years. (AP photo)

Pelosi’s trip is seen as a step toward diplomacy

COMMENTARY | April 15, 2007

The overseas press: House Speaker wins points widely; Israeli online publication says she produced results in Syria

By John Burke

Her trip may have irked George W. Bush, but the overseas press, especially that of the Middle East, was overwhelmingly in favor of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the region. Her talks with Syrian president Bahshar Al-Asad in early April were widely considered more productive than the various tours that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has made there.

Before the Iraq debacle kicked off in 2003, foreign papers urged Bush to renounce his “Axis of Evil” discourse and engage governments in diplomacy. Now, after years of war, some see Pelosi’s visit to Damascus as the first step in opening negotiations with Iran.

The Khaleej Times of the United Arab Emirates said Pelosi’s visit won’t cure Syria’s tainted image but it is a step in the right direction for American foreign policy, one that Bush should have taken a long time ago:

“IN FOLLOWING the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report, despite drawing much-expected condemnation from the White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is advancing the policy that Washington should have fallen back on a long time ago. She is also showing that foreign policy is not the prerogative of the White House only…

“To see the obvious advantage meaningful negotiations hold over threats and show of muscle, one need not look beyond recent events in the Middle East and North Korea. There should be little doubt now that diplomatic engagement holds a distinct edge over arm twisting… Still, the Bush administration refuses to recognise what practically the whole world has come round to understanding.

“Of course, it will take much more than a mere handshake and photo ops over tea between Pelosi and Bashaar Asad for Syria to adopt a more acceptable regional/international outlook. But it will give Iraq’s neighbours — who undoubtedly and undeniably play a very important role present day Middle East affairs — the feeling that some of their genuine demands might find place on the table when the future course is marked out.

“Furthermore, in addition to exposing ever-increasing splits between the Congress and the administration, Bush’s plain refusal to go along with any sort of compromise could soon be taken as deliberate attempts at preventing a probable thawing of the ice, much to the amazement of all stakeholders and beyond. At a time when the US is clearly weakened due to its own over ambitious foreign policy, and the Israeli government is in a state of perpetual shock owing to unending scandals and failures, Pelosi’s is perhaps the wisest course to take.

“At the risk of repetition, in continuing with its inflexible stance, the Bush administration is itself doing what it accuses Pelosi and the like of prompting — making America’s supposed enemies stronger. Nothing would embolden Tehran and Damascus more than seeing the US continue to take battering and loose face while those at the helm in Israel run from pillar to post to salvage what little pride they have left. In fact, much rather than reprimand the Pelosi initiative, Bush should look to emulate it.”

The Jordan Times wrote that Pelosi’s visit to Damascus was “constructive” and hailed it as a positive step towards solving the various crises that have devastated the region, especially Bush’s Iraq:

“Contrary to the opinion of President George Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and high-ranking officials could influence Syrian policy and help solve the crisis in Lebanon and Iraq…

“Certainly, this was this kind of visit that was deemed important by the Baker-Hamilton Commission…

“Aware that the road to solving many of the region's problems goes through Damascus, the powerful Democrat dismissed criticism of her visit, expressing her delegation's ‘clear intention to make our stances very clear to the Syrian leadership.’

“The U.S. Congressional delegation will not have traveled all the way to Syria simply to congratulate Bashar al-Assad, but rather to prod him to change course. Most likely they will ask the Syrians to stop meddling in Lebanese political affairs and contribute more convincingly to stability and security in Iraq…

“There can be no harm in trying to persuade Syria to be more forthcoming and cooperative, and that's obviously what Pelosi and her delegation plan to do.

“The Iraqi conflict has become a major regional and international one which calls for a bipartisan effort in the United States. The House Speaker's initiative should therefore be regarded as an effort that compliments those of President Bush rather than negative interference.

“Years after starting a conflict whose end is nowhere in sight, the U.S. administration should have come to realize and accept this much by now.” 

In an exclusive, the Israel-based, independent online publication, Debkafile (see credentials here), claims that Pelosi’s visit to Damascus produced results in the form of a 4-point plan for a solution to the conflict in Iraq drawn up by the Syrian government:

“The plan was presented to Nancy Pelosi when she met president Bashar Assad in Damascus Wednesday, April 4. DEBKAfile’s Middle East sources report that she and the members of her delegation were given to understand – although this was not spelled out by Assad – that Tehran was willing to be part of the first stages of the plan’s implementation, but might have reservations at later stages.

“The four points, according to our sources, cover Iraq’s military situation (terror), political situation and the roles played by Iraq’s neighbors in the conflict.

“The Syrian ruler rounded off his conversation with the US House Speaker, the highest American official to talk to him in two years, with this comment: ‘If the United States decides to reject my plan, then Condoleezza Rice’s talks with Arab intelligence chiefs in Amman and Cairo in the last two months will be become ducks’ quacks [in Arabic “geagea” – roughly, ‘meaningless chitchat’].’

“This was taken to mean that Rice will fail in her goal of establishing an anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian Arab bloc while also stabilizing Iraq.

“DEBKAfile’s sources reveal here the sense of the four-point blueprint, which Assad read out to his American visitors from a piece of paper:

“1. The US must recognize that the situation in Iraq has no military solution, only a political one. No indigenous Iraqi group or faction may be shut out of the political process. DEBKAfile’s sources interpret this point as a demand to reinstate Saddam Hussein’s Baath party in Iraq’s political life as an integral part of the political solution.

“2. No religious or ethnic community must be given a sense of victory over the others, and no group feel itself defeated. In other words, neither Shiite nor Sunni Muslims may be allowed triumph over the other.

“3. Following point 2., the US must cease its practice of categorizing the various groups in Iraq and treat them all as equals. This means that America will no longer be allowed to regard the Sunni Arabs as enemies.

“4. The US must generate circumstances in Iraq that provide its neighbors – Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey – with an interest in achieving an accommodation that guarantees Iraq’s unity, security and stability.

The members of the US congressional delegation, headed by Pelosi, gave DEBKAfile’s Middle East sources the impression that at this stage Tehran concurred with the Syrian president’s plan. They were not clear whether Iran would go along, once implementation began, or even discussion of the practical details. The delegates surmised that Tehran might possibly demur once the blueprint entered its operational stages.

The Tunisian weekly, Tunis Hebdo, doesn’t think Democratic sympathies in the Middle East will do any good as long as the “fascist” Bush is in the White House. Anyway, the Democrats aren’t the answer to the region’s problems, especially with their continued support of Israel:

“In politics, as in life, there are lucky days and unlucky days. The White House resident, who with an aching heart sees his authority in his own country melting away like snow in the sun after five years of absolute neo-con rule, undoubtedly knows something about this.

“Seldom in the history of the United States has a President seen his foreign policy as publicly criticized and contested by Americans as George Walker Bush. And as for the frontal attack that Nancy Pelosi just assaulted him with, it's quite simply without precedent. By ignoring the recriminations of the White House, which seeks to strangle Syria by tightening its isolation, the speaker of the House of Representatives broke a secular taboo in the country of Lincoln.

“But no one has any illusions about the results of Pelosi's visit. Even if the landlord of the Capitol is the third most powerful person in the U.S. State, democratically elected and lifted to that station by a hundred million American voters, she will not change the course of events in the region as long as ‘Number 43’ continues to occupy the Oval Office.

“George Walker Bush, who claims to act only in the name of bringing democracy to the (‘medieval’) Arabs and Muslims, in his own country fights this same democracy like a gladiator. Despite the repeated surges and great tides of people breaking in American cities, exhorting him to change course - particularly in Iraq - he persists in his stubbornness, sweeping away their demands with the back of his hand and threatening the use of his constitutional veto.

“The worst totalitarian dictator couldn't have done better; especially since the U.S. chief executive also bears, in abundance, such a dark past as a despotic President… Definitely, the Bush democracy has more than a whiff of fascism. It resembles death.  

“The meetings Mrs. Pelosi had in the capital city of the Omeyyades [the Dynasty of the Caliphs ] brought an end to her regional tour, but it won't have any effect as long as Congress, with its dominant Democrats, refuses to take the decisions of constraint that will force a shift in Presidential policies in the Middle East…

“’Syria isn't a charitable organization that gives to Washington without getting anything in return,’ asserted the heir of the Caliphs [Bashar al-Assad] to the press.

“…Nancy Pelosi herself… is far from being an honest broker with whom one could hope to arrive at a fair and lasting solution to the central conflict that has poisoned the Middle East for over half a century: the Israeli-Arab crisis.

“Even if she is classified as a person of the left, she demonstrates, like a majority of Democrats, an unconditional support for the Hebrew state, the creation of which, she repeats ceaselessly, is ‘one of the miracles of the 20th century.’


“The almost certain arrival of a Democrat in the White House in less than two years isn't necessarily a sign of encouragement for the Middle East…

Although Pelosi may be showing off a bit, the Saudi Gazette admires her decision to engage Damascus, dubbing her the “Alternative President” when compared to the actual incumbent who continues to refuse negotiations with Syria and Iran:

“U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reminds us of the ambitious office worker who is surrounded by dunderheads who can't or won't get the job done. So she rolls up her sleeves and says for all the world to hear: ‘Well, it looks like I'll have to do it myself.’

“Pelosi, the rabble-rousing Democratic leader - or better yet the Alternate President - has apparently decided that President George Bush's refusal to sit down and negotiate with Syria and Iran is just plain silly. If we are going to inch closer toward peace in Iraq, slow down Iran's nuclear ambitions and create a stable region, perhaps folding our arms across our chests and frowning is not the right approach.

“Pelosi, we have to admit, is grandstanding a bit…

“While substantive dialogue would be meaningful, the mere fact that Pelosi had the audacity to brush aside the increasingly isolated White House to get some work done is in itself impressive.

“Pelosi's delegation wants to emphasize the vital role that Syria plays in bringing peace to Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

"’We came in friendship and hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,’ Pelosi told reporters after her meetings.

“Yet Bush sees it as politics, pure and simple.

"’Sending delegations hasn't worked,’ he said. ‘It's just simply been counterproductive.’

Maybe. Maybe not. Certainly the silent treatment and saber rattling haven't been productive, either.”

The United Arab Emirates-based Gulf News had favorable words for Pelosi’s visit, noting the contrast between her openness versus the stubbornness the Bush administration in dealing with Syria:

“In the past week Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the US House of Representatives, put a kinder, gentler and more sublime face to US foreign policy.

“Not that she was asked to take on the challenge by the Bush administration. On the contrary, her visit to the Middle East, in particular to Syria, was criticised by the president himself. But like everything in Washington nowadays, the reaction among Democrats and Republicans, even the media, was mixed.

“Compare her trip to Beirut, Damascus, Occupied Jerusalem and Riyadh to presidential hopeful Senator John McCain's arrogant stroll in a Baghdad market recently amid heavy security in an attempt to convince Americans that ‘the situation is better in Iraq’. He fooled no one.

“Pelosi, of course, is not a maker of US foreign policy, but her high profile visit and her impressions will make a difference, especially as lawmakers confront the administration over Iraq, Iran, Syria and the peace process…

“But Pelosi, and many others on Capitol Hill, including Republicans, now believe that the Iraqi crisis cannot be resolved by military means alone…

“Instead, Pelosi is embracing key recommendations made by the bipartisan Hamilton-Baker commission on Iraq, namely to positively engage Iraq's neighbours in an effort to get their support for a political settlement. President Bush had ignored the commission's conclusions.

“(In her January visit to Iraq), It was clear that Madame Speaker had a singular take on Iraq signalling a departure from the conventional stand adopted, and fiercely defended, by the Bush administration.

“When contrasts are made, as they have been in the past few weeks, it is the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who has to compete with the rising star of Pelosi. In the past three months Rice made frequent visits to the region but none was linked to a major diplomatic breakthrough.

“Pelosi's journey to Damascus was interpreted as a stark challenge to the policy of the Bush administration, which had favoured slapping a diplomatic siege on the Bashar Al Assad regime.

“Bush was infuriated by her visit…

“But more importantly Pelosi heard Syria's point of view on US charges that Damascus was failing to control its borders with Iraq…

“The flap over Pelosi's visit to Damascus has resonated in the American press. The conservative media denounced her attempt to play the secretary of state, but the fact that Republican senators and representatives were flocking to meet with Bashar exonerated her. While political views on Iraq diverged, almost every one was convinced that Syria must be engaged politically…

“That left the Bush administration on the defensive. Pelosi has made contact with Syria and she was not alone. Others would follow suit.

“It was probably a result of Pelosi's visit that Rice announced that she was ready to meet with her Iranian counterpart over the future of Iraq. In spite of all the hubris, the Bush administration was leaning towards a course of action that would eventually open contacts with Washington's main opponents.

“While Pelosi's effect on US foreign policy may be modest, she has successfully presented a different approach to that of the Bush administration.

“By the end of the day it is Rice and the president who will decide how US foreign policy will be like in a region that presents the White House with its biggest challenge.

Iraq remains a bone of contention between lawmakers and the administration, but with Pelosi's input there is an alternative. Whether the Bush team will take that into consideration will be seen in the coming days.”

The Guardian’s opinion blog Comment is Free declares that the Republicans and their loyal commentators don’t have a leg to stand on when trying to denounce Pelosi’s Damascus visit:

“Is anyone surprised? The speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visits Syria, in a seemingly-uncontroversial attempt to promote ‘dialogue’ between the two countries, and Republicans get upset. At a press conference yesterday, presidential candidate Mitt Romney couldn't resist an unprompted attack: ‘Frankly, the decision of Nancy Pelosi to go to meet with Assad in Syria is one which I find outrageous.’ The National Review says Pelosi ‘could hardly have chosen a better way to undermine US foreign policy’. Hardly?

“It isn't surprising. Attempts to score political points usually aren't. But it is confusing: the conservatives' fury comes in two flavours, and neither makes much sense. First, the right seems to be upset because Pelosi wore a headscarf when she visited a Syrian mosque. Like clockwork, the conservative blogosphere has transformed itself into an army of feminists and taken to the battlements. ‘This picture disgusts me. What message is Nancy Pelosi trying to send?’ writes the New Editor. ‘The modern Democratic leadership,’ telegraphs Little Green Footballs, over a picture of Pelosi's sartorial choice. ‘How ... quaint.’

“They're grasping at straws. For one, Pelosi's critics ignore the inconvenient fact that First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have also, on several occasions, worn headscarves while visiting mosques. I suppose you could make a fetish of consistency and say that all of these women are wrong for engaging in flights of multiculturalism. But why? No one would argue that elected officials should indulge every cultural peccadillo on a trip abroad. (Genital mutilation? Cannibalism?) But it would be equally foolish to argue that culture is totally non-negotiable: Sometimes the benefits outweigh the harms, and, in the grand scheme of things, the headscarf seems trivial. It's both silly and desperate to say, as one blogger did, that she could have just worn a hat.

“The second flavour of conservative ire is that Pelosi's trip makes for bad foreign policy. National Review argues that the speaker's congressional majority is doing ‘its best to raise the white flag over the Middle East’ by indulging a murderous regime like Assad's. ‘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.’

“Well, believe it. In a poll released in December 2006 - just after the election the National Review cites - the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that three out of four Americans - including seven in ten Republicans - supported holding talks with both Iran and Syria. And, of course, diplomatic engagement with the two countries was also the centrepiece of the Iraq Study Group's report - an exercise in ostentatious bipartisanship if there ever was one.

“You can still make the argument that engaging with Syria is a mistake, or that the message of Pelosi's visit is the wrong one. But please, don't pretend that most Americans agree with you, or that the trip is the work of a crazed radical.

“…partisan football isn't a game that's played with facts. ‘Nancy Pelosi tends to forget that there is an executive branch,’ chortles the National Review. Well, America's executive branch tends to forget that there's this thing called diplomacy. Which is worse?”

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