The pitch vails in Damascus

It seems many have been waiting for me, an American Republican of Syrian extraction, to comment on the visit to Damascus of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking Democrat in Washington, who is constitutionally 3rd in line to fill the White House. London-based Syrian editorialist Rime Allaf chided me, "are you also outraged by Nancy Pelosi's visit to Damascus? Or did you notice the Republicans that went there just before her? :)"

Well, let me begin by saying that Pelosi's visit, as usual, illustrates how Washington politicians use foreign nations and issues as wedges to achieve their own political objectives. Pelosi will play both sides - during the trip, while the foreign media follows her around with baited breath, she will say, 'we need to talk to Syria because the Bush Administration screwed up Iraq so badly', but then once she returns stateside and she has to respond to all the angry emails and phone calls her office received, she'll wrap herself in the flag and defend herself by claiming, 'we did talk to President Assad but only to lecture the rogue about Hamas, Hezbollah, foreign fighters, etc.'

The whole thing is a thumb-in-Bush's-eye political move for her, and of course the Syrians took full advantage of it and gave her red carpet treatment.

The sad part is, Pelosi's magnanimity will only increase the mis-formulated and unfortunately widely believed Arab view that Democrats are saints, as I indicated in my February article in paleconservative journal Chronicles. Furthermore, I nearly vomited when Syrian President Bashar Assad told Diane Sawyer a few months back that former President Bill Clinton "is admired in our region and respected". I pity any Arab blind enough to deify a man whose only accomplishment in the Middle East was [hold your breath] a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. (continued...)

With respect to Pelosi specifically, boy, does this lady like to hog the spotlight. It was equally magnanimous of President Bush to make such a fuss over her on his first State of the Union address since starting the humble-pie diet, but she views herself as quite the American Princess. She might have been elected by her colleagues as Speaker of the House of Representatives, but Nancy Pelosi only serves in Washington at the pleasure of a mere 600,000 residents of Northern California. She ought to remember that as she parades around the Hamidiyeh Souq like a head-of-state wanna-be.

Now, back to Rime Allaf's teasing comment about the Republicans in the delegation. I think the high profile of the Speaker of the House conducting such a visit, and the fact that she's the first woman to hold the post, has made this whole visit much larger than what it is. This is Syria, not Iran, not North Korea. Congressional delegations of both parties have been camping out in Damascus for ages, and the US, despite having withdrawn its ambassador Margaret Scobey after the (former Lebanese PM Rafik) Hariri assassination, still operates an Embassy in Damascus. Compare that to Tehran, which has had no formal diplomatic ties with the US in almost 30 years.

Southern California Congressman Darrell Issa, an Arab-American himself who probably has more frequent flyer miles resulting from trips to Damascus than any of his colleagues, reinforced this point after his meeting with Assad today, one day after Pelosi's. Among Issa's remarks were:
"That's an important message to realize: We have tensions, but we have two functioning embassies...I have no illusions. We have serious problems to be resolved but we will resolve them."
In addition to Issa, 3 other Republicans visited with Assad in advance of Pelosi, including Frank Wolf of Virginia, who came out bluntly against Bush and said:
"I don't care what the administration says on this. You've got to do what you think is in the best interest of your country."
But you gotta love the way he and his colleagues, Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania and Robert Aderholt of Alabama put up Ronald Reagan as a shield against RINO-hunters. What would Reagan do? seems to have greater grassroots appeal to conservatives these days that the old saying, What would Jesus do? Their joint statement said:
"We came because we believe there is an opportunity for dialogue. We are following in the lead of Ronald Reagan, who reached out to the Soviets during the Cold War."
Back to Pelosi though, as I indicated earlier this is all about a domestic power play. Touting the Iraq Study Group, masterminded by Bush family consigliere James A. Baker, III was all the more to get under the President's skin. Naturally I agree with the general consensus of the Iraq Study Group, as far as it concerns a "Madrid II" comprehensive Bakerite approach to the region. But as far as the majority of its recommendations go, it does not exactly tip the scale. Sure, it ruffled a few neoconservative feathers in DC, but as Andrew Bajevich from the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy explains in The American Conservative:
"By the time George W. Bush became president, Republicans and Democrats alike subscribed to a common set of dubious assumptions: that the Persian Gulf represents a vital strategic interest, permanent and inescapable; that Gulf nations are incapable of managing their own affairs; that the United States, therefore, has no alternative but to determine the fate of this region; that American power and prestige, guided by distinguished statesmen in the mold of James Baker and Lee Hamilton, will suffice to do just that; that peace and prosperity for all lie just around the corner, if only Americans will persist a bit longer.

Here lies the ultimate purpose of the Iraq Study Group: to shield these assumptions from critical scrutiny. Perpetuating the Great Game of the modern Middle East ensures that the flow of oil, arms, and contracts continues without interruption."

In this regard, Pelosi is no hero, she's just describing the same decrepit scene with different colored sunglasses.

The controversial visit was the topic of an outstanding NPR segment, which featured an excellent array of contributors: my friend Joshua Landis, who runs syriacomment, the foremost Syria blog; Michael Young, the Libano-centric journalist and editor of The Daily Star; plus Hassan Fattah, an Iraqi who covers Syria for the New York Times; Brian Darling from the Heritage Foundation; and Charles Kupchan, who worked for the Clinton White House.

Listen to it on the above link, it starts at about halfway through. Fattah begins by strongly endorsing Pelosi's visit as a "victory" for Syria, and mentioned the weakness of the Syrian opposition, members of which Pelosi met at a dinner. Young, a contributing editor for the libertarian magazine Reason (to which I subscribe), feeling obvious angst over the disintegration of a multi-lateral anti-Syria international foreign policy consensus with which he is quite enamored, refers to Pelosi's visit as a "fools errand" and says that it "trashes" Bush's efforts to save Lebanon. Young, who is half-American, pays particularly attention to the investigation of the murder of former Prime Minister, and highlights Syria's suspected role. He played his cards (not a particularly good hand given recent regional trends) reasonably well until he pulled out the kamanja and attacked Pelosi by playing a swooning lick of المقام العراقي:

"I really don't understand what kind of message she's sending when she goes to Damascus, when she walks around Damascus as if she were in any normal capital in the world - a very friendly visit by the Speaker. What kind of message does that send to the families of Americans whose sons have been killed in Iraq?"

Brian Darling, upset about the Democrats' political maneuvers to embarrass the White House on Iraq and clearly still acquiring a taste for the humble-pie diet, touched upon the constitutionality of Pelosi's efforts:

"We have a President, and his name is George Bush...we need to speak with one voice as a nation, and that voice should come from the President of the United States, not members of's inappropriate for any member of Congress to go over there in a diplomatic mission. If these are fact-finding missions, that's one thing, that's completely appropriate. But if members of Congress are going over and trying to engage in diplomacy, that's the realm of our Secretary of State."

I agree with the spirit of Darling's remarks, but in all fairness, not his characterization of Pelosi's trip. There is no evidence that she engaged in any diplomacy with Syria, in fact her remarks were almost as trite and meaningless as the ones she made at the Arab American Institute's Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards in 2004. She left Damascus saying:

"We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to a mother I will exhaust every remedy for peace."

Charles Kupchan slapped Darling by bringing up Bob Dole's efforts in Kosovo as Senate Majority Leader. In my own view, it is not inappropriate for any member of Congress to do anything pertaining to the role of Congress as described in the US Constitution. Visiting Syria, or any other country, and discussing matters with the head of state does not require approval of the Executive Branch, especially as Congress has jurisdiction of the regulation of trade with other nations according to the Constitution. I touched upon these topics in more detail in an article written for the English-language Syrian magazine FW: in its inaugural issue, particularly as it relates to US sanctions on Syria.

Speaking of which, the likes of Darling didn't seem to mind when Congress butted its nose into Executive jurisdiction when their actions concurred and were designed to further humiliate Syria.

Young then returned to the Lebanese issue, and suggested that there is still a strong international consensus against Syria, and touted the Bush Administration's approach toward Lebanon as "a remarkable success". This is simply wishful thinking. The fact is that progress on multiple fronts in the Middle East cannot hinge upon Lebanon. Furthermore, it is foolish of the Bush Administration to make Lebanon, a tiny country of approximately 10,451.999 square kilometers (think: Connecticut), the centerpiece of its Middle East policy and tout it as the major lever of success. Lebanon has great potential and many strong points, but in terms of regional political trends it will always be a peculiarity due to the confessional nature of its population, and most especially, its political constitution.

Landis injected his usual dose of regional reality that has become somewhat of a trademark for his appearances on such programs.
"The Lebanese would like to have American Policy on hold until the Lebanese situation is solved. America can't do that. It would be unwise to do that...This is a Lebanese problem. It's an extension of the civil war...but if America tries to hold its foreign policy and negotiations on things like Iran, on peace with Israel, on influence on Iraq in abeyance until Lebanon solves its problems, we could be here for many more years. And there is no indication that American policy, which has been to try to force Syria to leave, to completely disband its influence on Lebanon, has been successful so far. This is another Syrian foot in the door, and we have to figure out a way to come to an accommodation."
There is much more to say that I will fold into an upcoming Chronicles article.

If you're still trying to figure out the meaning of the title of this post, don't bother. Just go have a سفن اب.