International Intelligence - Analysis
Published: April 11, 2007 at 2:31 PM
By CLAUDE SALHANI
UPI International Editor
WASHINGTON, April 11, 2007 (UPI) -- U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has come under heavy fire on a number of fronts over her trip to Damascus and her meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad -- an enemy of the United States, according to the Bush administration. But Syria insists it is no foe.
One of the many presidential candidates, Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, intensified his criticism of the Democratic House speaker for defying the White House ban on visiting Syria.
"The speaker of the House helped dignify a state sponsor of terror," Romney said in prepared remarks at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. "At this time of war, her action stands as one of the most partisan, divisive and ill-considered of any national leader in this decade."
Syria is considered a rogue state by the United States, which asserts the Syrians support terrorist groups. The Syrians see it differently. Those terrorist groups the United States accuses the Syrian leadership of supporting are seen as liberation movements by the Syrians.
So was Pelosi wrong in defying the White House and bringing President Assad out of his political isolation where President Bush wanted to see him linger? Republicans -- some of them at least -- believe she was wrong.
But if we look to history as a guide, the House speaker is more than right in talking to the "enemy." There are numerous precedents of the United States or its allies talking to groups or countries with which they were at war.
Even during the darkest days of the Cold War when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were at their chilliest, Washington and Moscow had installed a "red phone" between the two capitals to allow quick and easy access between the leaders of the free world and those of what President Reagan once called the "evil empire." The red phone was installed in case of urgent need for the leaders to communicate and to avoid having a crisis grow into a reason for a major confrontation.
During the Algerian quest for independence from France in the 1960s, Paris held secret talks with members of the National Liberation Front, or the FLN as it was known by its French acronym. And these talks were going on while the FLN was setting bombs and attacking and killing French troops as well as civilians in Algeria.
In Vietnam, during the conflict in Southeast Asia, U.S. officials had engaged in talks not only with the North Vietnamese, but with the Vietcong, too.
And in Iraq today, U.S. officials have at multiple times engaged Sunni insurgents in negotiations, all while these same rebels continue to fight the Americans.
By visiting Syria, Pelosi has not really done anything new in the world of politics. What is new is that in the past when such talks took place it was usually with the approval of the entire government. In Pelosi's case, she undertook this initiative on her own, stepping into what has traditionally been State Department or White House turf.
Still, there is a fundamental difference between the above-mentioned examples and Syria. "Contrary to what any one is saying, Syria is not an enemy of the United States," Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, told United Press International.
"We can work together on many issues," said the ambassador, adding that it was time to "engage to address the issues."
The ambassador, who was in Damascus during Pelosi's visit, said, "The discussions (between Pelosi and Assad) were very serious."
While Pelosi does not have the power to directly change the administration's policies, she can help influence future policy.
Mustapha told UPI that Syria agreed to continue to cooperate with the House speaker. He said the Syrian government told Pelosi to "go back and tell the (Bush) administration" that Syria wanted to cooperate with Washington.
But, said the Syrian diplomat, "This administration does not want to listen." Given that no progress is likely to be made during the remainder of the Bush administration, the Syrian ambassador said, "Please let us prepare for the future."
By that he means pave the way for better relations with the next administration.
"We are not trying to score points," said the Syrian diplomat, noting that Washington's current policy is not leading to Syria being isolated. Rather, "It is the Bush administration that is being isolated."
"It's time for this administration to reconsider its policy toward Syria," said Mustapha. But the chances of that happening are rather slim.