Walking A Fine Diplomatic Line

Delegations led by prominent members of Congress certainly measure up to their stature when they travel abroad and trips to Central Asia over the last two weeks by congressional representatives proved no exception.

Senators succeeded in making their mark in the region after being greeted by presidents and prime ministers and gladhanding American troops supporting the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

But lawmakers with good intentions can sometimes step in diplomatic minefields when they are abroad.

Take the case of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who on Jan. 8 told reporters in a press conference in Islamabad that Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf was about to give a “critically important” speech that may signal “a new chapter in relationship between Pakistan and India.”

The remarks, following a brief meeting with Musharraf, put senior Pakistani officials in a frenzy. They rushed correct the record, and complained that Lieberman, who has been widely considered as a presidential candidate for 2004, had raised expectations too high. Musharraf was in fact not prepared to make such hard-hitting statements.

In the end, the Pakistani leader told his people that he was indeed cracking down on Muslim extremists and terrorist groups that may be responsible for the recent violence against Indians over the disputed region of Kashmir. He also said he wanted his country to move away from its drift towards radical Islam. But he also warned India that Pakistan would do everything in its power to protect its territorial integrity.

Lieberman’s spokesman said the senator stands by his initial impulse.

“That very issue was a major part of the meeting with the senators and Musharraf, and that was the message he wanted us to hear,” said spokesman Fred Downey. “I have to say that Sen. Lieberman and the other members of the delegation do believe that is what Musharraf said he was going to achieve in that meeting.”

But critics say this just an example of American politicians who use the world stage to run for office and that, in some cases, this tactic may be diplomatically dangerous.

“The presidential candidate has a tremendous need and incentive to get attention and to get at the front of the news program,” said John Samples, a political analyst for the Cato Institute. “He (Lieberman) has to make news, he may be skimming for every photo opportunity and he may push that too far.”

American Enterprise Institute political expert Norman Ornstein agrees that there is a line that could be crossed. “Individual senators or House members who can carry weight need to be a bit careful of getting into a policy debate that first needs to be handled by their diplomats,” he said.

But in Lieberman’s case, it “seemed to be a helpful thing,” Ornstein offered. “In this case, it was a good thing to do because it gave an extra push to the Pakistanis.  It led them to do something more bold and substantive.”