Even as a matter of political self-interest, President Bush made himself look bad by carping about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit yesterday in Damascus with Syria's president, Bashar Assad.
Bush's complaint that Pelosi and the bipartisan congressional delegation were sending 'mixed signals' made it appear that Bush either resents or refuses to accept the Constitution's unambiguous granting of extensive powers in foreign policy to the legislative branch. Pelosi and her colleagues were doing what innumerable delegations of senators and representatives have done in the past: traveling abroad to consult with foreign leaders, gather information, and enhance their ability to fulfill their obligations to advise, consent, and appropriate funds. Republican congressmen met with Assad last week. If the American system of checks and balances is to function properly, the co-equal legislative branch must exercise its powers to check and balance the actions of the executive branch.
When it comes to Bush's approach to the Assad regime in Syria, there is a particularly glaring need for Congress to explore the road not taken. There is no doubting the nastiness of the Assad dictatorship, but the Bush policy for Syria has been an unconcealable failure. For too long, Bush has acted as though he could compel Assad to change his trouble-making ways by isolating Syria and by refusing to engage in direct discussions about Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Iraq Study Group headed by former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton and former secretary of state James Baker recommended, as a potential means for stabilizing Iraq, that the administration engage in dialogue with both Iran and Syria. Baker, who obtained the cooperation of Bashar's father, Hafez Assad, in the 1991 war to chase Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, observed after the release of the group's report last December that talking with adversaries is not appeasement. This summarizes the tough-minded statecraft that Baker and the first President Bush practiced when waging the first Gulf war, managing the bloodless demise of the Soviet Union, and achieving the unification of East and West Germany.
This week in Damascus, Pelosi and her colleagues were following Baker's advice. And despite Bush's petulant assertion that 'photo opportunities and/or meetings with President Assad lead the Assad government to believe they're part of the international community,' US diplomats attended an Iraq security conference alongside Syrian and Iranian envoys last month in Baghdad. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to participate in a meeting this month in Turkey with her Iranian and Syrian counterparts. Bush may not want to admit it, but he too has begun tiptoeing in the direction of Baker's traditional deal-making statecraft.