WASHINGTON – An apparently botched message during a widely discouraged visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Syria this week has U.S. officials criticizing rogue efforts at diplomacy among U.S. politicians.
State Department officials said Thursday they made it quite clear they did not want Pelosi to visit Syria, a nation that is listed as a state sponsor of terror and is home to terror group Hezbollah, which started a low-grade war with Israel last summer.
Pelosi is the highest ranking U.S. official to go to Syria since former Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the nation in 2003. Defying the White House's Middle East policy by meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Pelosi said, "The road to Damascus is a road to peace."
After meeting for three hours with Assad on Wednesday, the House speaker announced that the Syrian president is "ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel." Assad has repeatedly said over the past year that Damascus is willing to negotiate with Israel as long as talks lead to the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel after it was attacked by Syria and six other neighbors in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Shocking officials in Jerusalem, where she had visited two days earlier, Pelosi said she also told Assad that Olmert had wanted to relay the message that Israel is ready for peace talks with Syria.
That came as a surprise to the prime minister, whose office on Wednesday denied any such conversation and said that "what was discussed with the House speaker did not include any change in Israel's policy, as it has been presented to international parties involved in the matter."
Olmert's office also issued a statement saying it had specified to Pelosi that Israel considers Syria "part of the axis of evil and a party encouraging terrorism in the entire Middle East."
Pelosi's office on Thursday issued a statement saying that she "accurately relayed" the message from Olmert to Assad, which was that Syria must cease its ties with Hamas and Hezbollah, among other things that the Bush administration also is calling for.
The statement also downplayed the reaction by Israeli officials, which Pelosi's office said "sought merely to express that the message given to Speaker Pelosi did not indicate a change in Israel's position toward Syria. The speaker neither said nor implied that this message was a change in Israel's position."
A group of three Republican congressmen also visited Syria in recent days, but with a much lower profile. They too met with Assad. One staff member, however, said the two trips were planned independently and the Republicans were unaware of the speaker's travel plans.
Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., issued a statement Wednesday putting distance between his trip with Reps. Frank Wolf of Virginia and Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania. Other Republicans visiting Syria in recent days were Reps. David Hobson of Ohio and Darrell Issa of California.
"I, along with my colleagues, fully support the Administration's long term strategy and decisions regarding Syria. My visit was in no way an attempt to make foreign policy or negotiate on behalf of the United States government," Aderholt said, characterizing the visit only as a "fact-finding trip."
U.S. government officials say the visit by Pelosi, and to a lesser extent other members of Congress, weakens efforts to isolate Damascus and cut off Syria for its attempts to undermine Mideast peace.
"I think the administration's position on members of Congress, Democrat or Republican, is very clear: We do not think it's productive; we do not think it is useful; we do not think it is helpful," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters Thursday in Crawford, Texas.
The United States has kept Syria in the loop as part of an international support group for Iraq. U.S. officials sat down with Iran and Syria, among others, in February on ways to improve Iraq's security situation.
But with the exception of that, diplomacy has been nearly non-existent in an effort to stop Syria in its tracks on everything from its support of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah to what is widely believed to be its role in the assassination of Lebanese leaders, including that of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
"People want to open a dialogue, but just, you know, talking for the sake of talking really doesn't accomplish very much, unless you have some kind of a goal in mind. I mean, what do we want out of the Syrians? What are we asking them to do in these conversations? And that would be interesting to know, I think," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told radio talk show host Laura Ingraham on Wednesday.
In an interview with ABC News, Vice President Dick Cheney said Assad has "been isolated and cut off because of his bad behavior, and the unfortunate thing about the speaker's visit is it sort of breaks down that barrier."
Even The Washington Post editorialized in Thursday editions that “Ms. Pelosi's attempt to establish a shadow presidency is not only counterproductive, it is foolish.”
Foreign policy analyst Marwan al-Kabalan contends that the visit by the third-ranking U.S. official and leader of the opposition party in the United States leaves Syria with a strengthened hand.
"This will help give the impression that Syria is no longer isolated in the world. So now, you can't ask the Europeans or others not to visit the Syrians like you used to before," al-Kabalan, a professor of political science and media, told The New York Times.
Pelosi was careful to say that Democrats and President Bush share no policy differences on Israel, the Palestinians or Syria. While she won praise from Saudi Arabian leaders for her engagement, she did not impress some Syrian commentators.
"There was a feeling this visit had more to do with domestic politics than us. If she isn't going to be very different from Bush, then why did she come?" asked Jihad Yaziji in The Syria Report.
FOX News' Jim Angle and Molly Hooper and The Associated Press contributed to this report.