If it's spring break in Washington, then that must be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — accompanied by, my goodness, the perpetually pro-Israel Tom Lantos! — heading for Syria this week.
Pelosi's delegation is currently in Lebanon. AP's Zeina Karam writes there that the Speaker,
Said she thinks it's a good idea to "establish facts, to hopefully build the confidence" between the U.S. and Syria.And guess who's waxing apoplectic about this? Yes, that would be Dana Perino, the fill-in for Tony Snow as White House spokesperson. Karam's piece notes that Perino said,
"We have no illusions, but we have great hope," she said.
Pelosi, who is leading a congressional delegation on a fact-finding tour of the Middle East, said she would speak to the Syrians about Iraq, their role in the fight against terrorism, their support for militant groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas — whose exiled leaders live in Damascus — as well their influence in Lebanon.
"We ask that people not go on these trips... We discourage it. Full stop." [Plus, it] "sends the wrong message to have high-level U.S. officials going there (to Syria) to have photo opportunities that Assad then exploits."Oops! Then I guess having the Bush administration's very own Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Affairs Ellen Sauerbrey go to Syria last month was all a terrible mistake then?
Even Israel's Acting President, Dalia Itzik, was much more moderate than Perino. She told Pelosi yesterday that,
"Your expected visit to Damascus has naturally touched off a political debate in your country, and of course, here... 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."But the main thing Washington needs to talk to Syria about right now is Iraq. And this strand of the American-Syrian diplomatic dance is quite complex, and in some ways very counter-intuitive. Did you think that it was the Syrians and their Iranian allies who want U.S. troops out of Iraq and the stubborn old Bush Administration that wants them to stay?
To a great degree you'd be wrong, on both counts. Here in London a couple of weeks ago my friend the veteran strategic analyst Hussein Agha told me (and on reflection, I quite agree) that, for now, all of Iraq's neighbors prefer that U.S. troops stay tied down inside Iraq, rather than withdraw. The gist of what Agha said was that for some of those neighboring countries — and this definitely includes both Syria along with Iran — the status quo lessens the likelihood of U.S. attacks against them. Meanwhile for others of the neighbors (and yes, that includes Syria, once again) it represents a situation strongly preferable to the regional turmoil they fear might follow U.S. withdrawal.
As for the Bush administration — well yes, at the ideological/political level of Bush and his resident "brain", Dick Cheney, it is quite possible that some of them still believe all that stuff about "staying the course", the value of the "surge", etc. But Matthew Dowd, who was a key Bush political advisor during the 2004 election campaign is only one of the former Bush supporters who has now been "mugged by reality", and has come out as openly critical of the way the Prez has been waging this war.
As for the serving military, it has been clear for some time that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace has been prepared to quietly push back against the Bushites' rampant bellophilia. And former commander of the U.S. Army War College Maj.-Gen. (Retd.) Robert H. Scales recently wrote openly in the Washington Times that,
The current political catfight over withdrawal dates is made moot by the above facts. We're running out of soldiers faster than we're running out of warfighting missions. The troops will be coming home soon. There simply are too few to sustain the surge for very much longer.Since Scales is also a former advisor to Rumsfeld when Rummy was at the Petnagon, I guess that makes him a clear defector from the Bush project in Iraq, too.
Here's the bottom line though: It is now not only (or perhaps, even, not mainly) the Dems, in Washington, who now want to find the speediest and safest possible exit for the U.S. troops from Iraq. It is also the uniformed military — and also, quite likely, the very low-key Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who seems to see his role overwhelmingly as acting as the "anti-Rumsfeld" in the Pentagon.
But the Syrians, Iranians, and all the rest of Iraq's neighbors are meanwhile (quietly) quite keen to see the U.S. troops remain in Iraq. I have a little direct evidence of that myself. When I defied the President's injunctions and went to Damascus at the end of February, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem was adamant during the interview I conducted with him that the U.S. should effect a complete withdrawal of all its forces from Iraq — but when I pressed him to specify the time period over which he thought this withdrawal should occur, he notably declined my invitation to do that.
So the diplomacy of this U.S. withdrawal from Iraq looks set to be very interesting indeed.
By Helena Cobban
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation