Flap Over Speaker Pelosi’s Syria Trip

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," April 5, 2007, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Hi, everybody, defiant House Speaker Nancy Pelosi couldn't wait to tell the world that she brought a peace message from Israel to Syria, but now Israel says the speaker spoke wrong. Pelosi has been overseas this week playing secretary of state, talking U.S. foreign policy, taking it into her own hands by meeting with foreign leaders in the Middle East. She's met with Syria's leader, in particular, against the Bush administration's advice and wishes. After the visit she announced this to the world.


NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: The meeting with the president enabled us to communicate a message from Prime Minster Olmert that Israel was ready to engage in peace talks, as well.


GIBSON: Well, the speaker said she brought a message from Israel to Syria that it was ready to engage in peace talks, as you just heard, and Syria was game too, but Israel says it didn't give her that message and its position on Syria has not changed. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, "Although Israel is interested in peace with Syria, that country continues to be part of the axis of evil and a force that encourages terror in the entire Middle East. What was communicated to the U.S. House speaker does not contain any change in the policies of Israel as was communicated to other foreign leaders."

Let's get reaction now former White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer. So Ari, when Nancy Pelosi trots off on amateur diplomatic mission, it may be an embarrassment for her. How much does it actually hurt the United States?

ARI FLEISCHER, FMR WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: Well, it complicates things, John, and that's the problem in a very complicated region. When I was in my old job at the White House, and particularly the Middle East, I always had to pick my words with great care because of the sensitivities in the region. And I think this is where she made a double blunder.

No. 1, she said she was conveying a message from Israel and she misconceived that message, which is difficult to put Israel in that spot, and she did. And secondly, she said the road to peace goes through Damascus and I think from a point of view of how to bring peace to the region, you don't want to send any signals in Syria that they can determine the pace and timing of peace. She sounded much like a supplicant. It's better to have Ronald Reagan's strong foreign policy of make them come to us, we don't need to go to them. And I think that's the problem what she's saying.

GIBSON: Ari, it is not just the Bush administration who's being critical of her. Today the Washington Post, which is not exactly conservative newspaper, blasts Pelosi, called her "foolish," said her statements were ludicrous and then described her in a sense as a diplomatic amateur. How could she go — that she was in over her head. How could she go and make these mistakes? Why did she do this?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think foreign policy requires a great learning curve for a number of people and that includes the new speaker of the house and she going to have to continue to take steps to climb that ladder in our country's interests, she is the speaker, she gets better at this.

But you know, she also said she expressed our concerns, as Americans, with what Syria is doing vis-a-vis Hezbollah in allowing weapons and terrorists into Iraq. Well, you know, "expressed concern" is the language I used when we had a trade dispute with Canada over blue fishing. You know, you don't express concerns to a terrorist state, you condemn what they've done. And this is where I think that she really went there and was much too soft, sent the image, which I don't think the Democrats don't want to convey, that they would be soft with a terrorist state like Syria which deserves, rightfully, to be condemned. The road to peace doesn't go through Damascus. Damascus has been plowing that road and with violence and with terror and that's the problem and I wish Nancy Pelosi had been tougher, publicly and privately.

GIBSON: All right, Ari, would it be reasonable for Bashar Assad to think, well I don't have to deal with the Bush administration anymore, I've the Democratically controlled Congress in the palm of my hand?

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't think he could say he has anybody in the palm of his hand, John, but I do think he can wait out the Bush administration; he was probably going to do that anyway. But now he believes that Pelosi speaks for the Democrats. What I would do if I'm Assad, is I say: they're going to come to me. I don't need to make any concessions; I don't need to reach out to Israel. Instead, I'll wait for the Democrats to win and if they do, they'll come to me. And I think that's what complicates peace in the Middle East. The Arabs need to do more to work with Israel and when they hear that message of peace goes through Damascus, it allows the Arab nations to sit back and that puts Israel in more danger.

GIBSON: Syria is letting insurgents and Jihads cross its border into Iraq. Americans are being killed by these people. When she speaks directly to him and carries on her own foreign policy, is he more likely to stop that or just let it go on.

FLEISCHER: No, I think that a dictator like Assad was likely to continue his ways regardless of what Nancy Pelosi did or George W. Bush did. He'll change his ways when he's under sufficient internal trouble or he just recognizes he has to make a deal with Israel, because Israel is strong.

You know, he is really one of the biggest disappointments of the Middle East. He is a provider, still, of weaponry to Hezbollah and Lebanon. He has supported the killings in Lebanon and he is a real world class problem and he deserves to be treated as one and condemned as one. That's the problem with what Nancy Pelosi said.

GIBSON: Former White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer. Ari, thanks very much. Good to talk to you.

FLEISCHER: Thank you John.

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