One of our endearing traits as Americans is that on most issues we seldom speak with one voice. On the other hand the Constitution makes it pretty clear who is in charge of what. The last time anyone looked, foreign policy, with the advice and consent of the Congress on treaty matters and war, is the province of the White House. It is more often than not a tricky business that requires at least an appearance of national unity.
So why did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decide to travel to Syria when current U.S. policy toward that nation has been to isolate it because of its interference, intransigence and hindrance, in the efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and its undisputed support of terrorists? The White House made it pretty clear that her trip was not a good idea given her position. There was a serious danger that the Syrian government and U.S. allies in the region both would get the wrong message. Just the publicity of her wandering around Damascus, they contended, increased the chances of that happening.
The answer seems fairly obvious. Even in the delicate business of diplomacy the new Democratic majority in Congress wants to signal that there is a new game in the capital of the United States, that it has regained the leadership voice muted by 12 years of Republican control and six years of a GOP presidency. With more than 60 percent of Americans disapproving of Bush’s overall job performance, the Democrats reason there is no better time to accomplish this on all fronts, domestic and foreign. Bolstering this effort is the fact that a huge majority of the national electorate has had enough of Iraq.
Well, there are about 10,000 cliches, all of them accurate, to describe why this approach is not in the best interests of the nation. The most common one has to do with too many cooks spoiling the broth. Our foreign relations are difficult enough without being tweaked by someone who is the chief political opponent of the person assigned to carry them out. She may be one of the two top officials in Congress and is second in line for the presidency but she is a novice in the intricate and Byzantine world of foreign affairs.
Lawmakers love to travel the globe every spring on junkets they euphemistically refer to as “information gathering.” They do sometimes meet with their counterparts in foreign countries and even are greeted by heads of state. But those officially charged with carrying out and protecting U.S. interests in those countries guide them around the pitfalls and prevent them from committing embarrassing mistakes. On any number of occasions Senate leaders on foreign policy are asked to carry official messages and are debriefed thoroughly when they return. Blatant interference with official policies, however, is another matter altogether and that includes ignoring the chief executive’s request not to go to a difficult country where such a visit might be misunderstood.
A number of years ago Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a onetime local radio personality, got himself elected to the U.S. Senate and almost immediately began interfering in foreign policy matters, including holding up U.S. financial support for the U.N. Members of his staff ventured overseas where they tried to intimidate U.S. diplomats and were guilty of a number of outrageous incidents. Helms’ mid-19th century approach to nearly everything, but most particularly overseas relations, was a thorn in the side of several presidents.
As the first woman ever elected speaker, Pelosi has her hands full with domestic matters and overcoming the prejudices of those who believe her next move will be to redecorate the House chambers. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. She is an accomplished political professional who can handle most any task. But her forte is not diplomacy and even if it were, the last thing the nation needs now is a divisive approach to our problems with the likes of Syria. She should have listened to the White House and not made Syria one of her destinations. Such requests are not made lightly for someone of her stature.
This president’s remaining term is less than two years. If the next president is a Democrat, which now seems likely, she can expect to have more influence in this area, but it is a cinch whoever that is will insist on his or her own policy and Pelosi would understand.
–DAN K. THOMASSON
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)