WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, deflecting White House criticism of her trip to Syria, said Friday she thinks the mission helped President Bush because it showed the U.S. is unified against terrorism despite being divided over Iraq.
Pelosi, D-Calif., met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus this week against Bush's wishes.
"Our message was President Bush's message," Pelosi said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from Portugal, where she stopped briefly en route back to the United States.
"The funny thing is, I think we may have even had a more powerful impact with our message because of the attention that was called to our trip," she said. "It became clear to President Assad that even though we have our differences in the United States, there is no division between the president and the Congress and the Democrats on the message we wanted him to receive."
Bush this week assailed Pelosi for making the trip to Damascus, saying it sent mixed messages to the Syrian government, which his administration considers to be a state supporter of terrorism.
"There is nothing funny about the impact her trip to Syria has had," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who is with Bush in Texas. "On the contrary, these visits have convinced the Assad regime that its actions in support of terrorists have no consequences."
Lawmakers frequently travel to the Middle East, and several Republicans were in the region at the same time as Pelosi. But as House speaker, Pelosi received the most attention.
She was most heavily criticized for her talks with Syria and Israel. Vice President Dick Cheney called it "bad behavior" on her part to try to broker a deal between the two — a sensitive matter that would be considered the sole province of the executive branch.
After meeting Wednesday with Syria's Assad, Pelosi said she had delivered a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel was ready for peace talks. Pelosi told reporters in the region that Assad had replied that "he's ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel."
Olmert's office later issued a statement saying such talks could take place only if Syria stopped assisting terror groups.
Cheney, in an interview on Rush Limbaugh's radio program, said of Pelosi's comment: "It was a non-statement, nonsensical statement and didn't make any sense at all that she would suggest that those talks could go forward as long as the Syrians conducted themselves as a prime state sponsor of terror."
Pelosi said Friday she had paid no attention to the dustup back in the United States.
She also said the delegation was not trying to cut deals between Syria and Israel but rather "assessing the ground truth" to inform spending decisions made by Congress.
"What others were saying and doing was many miles away, in a different time zone and had no impact on our trip except to call more attention to it," Pelosi said.
Pelosi is locked in a political standoff with Bush over handling of the Iraq war, with Pelosi insisting that troops should come home in 2008 and Bush refusing to set any timetable. The House and Senate are working on compromise legislation expected to identify an end date to the war, which Bush has said he will veto.