Pelosi's Folly

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stands watching as she visits the Saudi consultative council accompanied by Sheik Saleh bin Humaid, the head of Saudi consultative council and Imam of Mecca great mosque, during her visit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, April 5, 2007.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
AP Photo/Amr Nabil
This column was written by Fred Barnes.

Something gets into political leaders when they take over Congress. It makes them think they can run Washington and the government from Capitol Hill. So they overreach, but it never works. Republicans tried it in 1995 and were slapped down by President Clinton in the fight over the budget and a government shutdown. Now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is operating as if she rules much more than just the House of Representatives. This includes having her own foreign policy — a sure recipe for trouble.

Indeed, trouble is exactly what she's created on her first trip overseas in her position as next in succession for the presidency, behind the vice president. Pelosi's visit to Damascus for talks with Syrian president Bashir Assad showed her ill-equipped to deal with the longstanding conflict between Israel and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East. She made three serious mistakes.

Pelosi got off on the wrong foot by stating beforehand her belief that "the road to Damascus is a road to peace." Not true. In the struggle between Israelis and Arabs, the road to Damascus has not been a path to peace — quite the contrary. In fact, Assad and his father, who preceded him as president, have never made more than a minimal effort to reach a peace settlement with Israel.

Pelosi seemed to think it would be easy to get the Israelis and Syrians together at the bargaining table. It's not and never has been. The complicated nature of diplomacy in the Middle East eluded her. She was in way over her head. She didn't understand what she was dealing with. This was her first big mistake.

She said she carried an overture for peace talks from Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert to Assad, thinking this was new and significant. But the Olmert message consisted merely of a re-statement of the venerable Israeli position that talks could begin once Syria halted its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, terrorist groups who target Israelis. And there were other Israeli conditions. There was nothing new in this. It was an offer Syria was bound to refuse. In response, Assad offered his boilerplate response. And Pelosi appeared to think that was significant, too. She said Syria was poised to "resume the peace process." But Syria wasn't ready to do so on terms acceptable to Israel.

Her second mistake was believing the conventional wisdom in Washington that headway could be made with the Syrians if only we'd talk to them. This was the advice of the Iraq Study Group and the foreign policy establishment. But the Bush administration had already tried talking to the Syrians — for five years, in fact — and gotten nowhere. Pelosi also got nowhere.

In place of talking, the Bush administration has adopted a strategy of isolating Syria to see if that might make the Syrians more accommodating. This might work someday, but it hasn't yet, particularly because Syria is hardly isolated. Diplomats from Europe come for sit-downs with Assad and so have members of Congress (with less rank than Pelosi). These talks have produced nothing.

Pelosi's third (and biggest) mistake was thinking she could broker a peace between Israel and Syria. This was naive in the extreme. "We expressed our interest in using our good offices in promoting peace between Israel and Syria," she said. Democrat Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accompanied Pelosi and said they could "build" on the meeting with Assad.

Build what? A rival American policy in the Middle East to the Bush administration's. That would surely be counterproductive, with cunning players like the Syrians playing the Bush administration off against the Pelosi camp — at the expense of Israel and also at the cost of coherence in America's approach to the Middle East.

The saving grace in Pelosi's meddling is that she probably hasn't done much harm, except to her reputation. That won't be true in Iraq, however, if her foray into military strategy with timetables for troop withdrawals becomes law. That could wipe out America's best chance for winning in Iraq — pursuing counterinsurgency tactics to secure Baghdad. That would be overreaching with a distinctly harmful impact.

By Fred Barnes