WASHINGTON – Longtime Republican Senator Arlen Specter said he will visit Syria despite loud objections by the Bush administration, saying the situation in Iraq is so dire that it is time Congress step up to the plate and see what it can do.
Specter, who has been in the Senate for 26 years, said in an interview late Friday he is planning a trip to the Middle East that will include Israel and Syria. The senator said he and other Republicans are concerned that the administration's policies in the Middle East are not working and that other Republican members may follow him.
"I've talked to my Republican colleagues, and there is a disquiet here," Specter said.
The visit, coming after a trip by Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, would be a direct affront to the White House. The United States has limited diplomatic ties with Syria because of its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, which the U.S. calls terrorist organizations. President George W. Bush has expressed reluctance to seek help from Damascus on Iraq until the Syrians curb that support and reduce their influence in Lebanon.
Specter's interest in Syria is nothing new. He has visited Syria 15 times since 1984 and even attended the funeral of Assad's father. The senator visited with then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1990 and has tried repeatedly to engage officials in Iran, although to no avail.
The White House sharply criticized Nelson, a Democrat, for visiting Syria despite Nelson's assertion that the meeting was helpful. Nelson said Syrian President Bashar Assad said he was willing to help control the Iraq-Syrian border, where foreign fighters cross into Iraq.
"We think it's inappropriate," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday of the planned congressional trips to the region. In addition to Nelson and Specter, Democratic Senators John Kerry and Christopher Dodd were expected to visit Syria.
"The concern here, among other things, is that this does not strengthen the hand of democracy in the region ... but instead allows the Syrians to dodge the real responsibilities they have," Snow said.
White House spokesman Alex Conant said late Friday that Snow's comments hold true for Specter as well.
The diplomatic push from Congress found revived inspiration from a bipartisan panel that recently recommended the U.S. engage Iran and Syria on the war in Iraq. Bush has remained cool to the proposal by the Iraq Study Group, which was led by former Republican Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Representative Lee Hamilton.
In recent days, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Specter in a telephone call not to go to Syria, the senator said. But Specter, who had acquiesced to similar requests before, said time was up.
"I deferred to them a year ago, and I deferred to them last August," Specter said. "And if there were any signs the administrative policy (in the Middle East) was working, I'd defer to them again."
Specter said he was not under the impression he would walk away with a diplomatic deal or believed he was stepping on anyone's toes. But, he added, lawmakers could conduct fact-finding trips that could help inform discussions and still leave foreign policy negotiations up to the White House.
"I now believe that with the report of the independent study group and the administration policy, which is not working, there should be a fresh look at it by Congress," said Specter, who chairs the Judiciary Committee and is a senior member of the Appropriations panel.
Specter has challenged the Bush administration's position on other matters as well, including the White House policy toward terrorism suspects.