In Washington: Gutsy new House Speaker

You know what they say: no good deed goes unpunished. That is certainly the case with Nancy Pelosi.

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(photo credit: )
You know what they say: no good deed goes unpunished. That is certainly the case with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her visit to Syria. At a time (the Easter-Passover recess) when dozens of House members and Senators are visiting foreign capitals and discussing policy with foreign leaders, Pelosi is being skewered for, in the words of the Washington Post's editors, "substituting her own foreign policy for that of a sitting Republican President." The Post accuses Pelosi of "try[ing] to introduce a new US diplomatic initiative in the Middle East." Heaven forefend! Things are going so swimmingly in the Middle East that the last thing anyone needs is for the 3rd highest official in the United States trying to resuscitate diplomacy. The specific objection is to her meeting with the Syrian leader, Bashar Assad. Of course, few could object to what she told Assad - that he should stop trouble making in Iraq and Lebanon, that the Israeli government is ready for negotiations, that Israel has no bellicose intentions toward Syria and that Syria should use its influence to free Israeli prisoners. In fact, David Hobson, a Republican from Ohio who accompanied Pelosi, said that the Speaker did not stray very far from Bush administration policy. Hobson said Pelosi "did not engage in any Bush bashing she did not...bash [Bush] policies as they relate to Syria." Instead, Hobson said, Pelosi urged Assad to curb the number of suicide bombers who cross the Syrian border into Iraq to "murder our troops and the Iraqi people." Republican House leader, John Boehner, admitted that there was nothing wrong with legislators in general visiting Syria. "It's one thing for other members to go," Boehner said, "but you have to ask yourself, 'Why is Pelosi going?" The answer isn't that hard. She went for the same reasons as Tom Lantos (D-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, as Henry Waxman (D-CA), the most senior Jewish member of the House, as Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim-American in Congress, as Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY), Rules Committee Chair, as Nick J. Rahall II (D-WV), the senior Arab-American in Congress, and Senior Defense Appropriator David Hobson (R-OH). She went to advance US interests in the Middle East, believing that we can perhaps get more out of Syria by engaging it than by shunning it. THE CRITICS are feigning outrage because they don't like Pelosi and because, by visiting Syria, Pelosi has revived one of the Baker-Hamilton Report's prescriptions for ending the Iraq war: engaging Iran and Syria. Baker-Hamilton recognizes that Syria and Iran can do more to impede the extrication of our soldiers and marines from Iraq than any other countries on the planet (with the exception of Iraq itself). On the other hand, if they choose to, they can ease our way out of Iraq and help prevent that country's further descent into chaos and civil war. The Israeli government added to the Pelosi controversy by saying that Pelosi did not carry any private messages from Jerusalem to Damascus. But the Israelis have been using intermediaries to convey information to the Syrians for a long time. It is inconceivable that the highest ranking American in memory to visit Damascus would visit Israel, en route to Syria, and not be asked to convey a message to Assad from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. One can only hope that she was carrying messages from Israel. Why wouldn't the Israelis seize that opportunity? Pelosi's visit strengthened America's position in the region, and likely helped Israel on prisoners, on Hizbullah, and in its effort to avoid another war like last summer's. It was a gutsy move by the new Speaker and one that deserves commendation, not criticism from those who are committed to the whole litany of failed policies of recent years. One would think that some of these pundits would look at the sheer carnage they delivered in Iraq - the 3,200 American dead and the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians - and be shamed into shutting up. But no such luck. In this context, and with the Easter holiday just behind us, it is worth recalling Jesus' words in Matthew 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God." That is not exactly what the critics are calling Pelosi. But, the New Testament notwithstanding, peacemakers are rarely praised in their own time while the cheerleaders for unnecessary wars are never, held accountable for them. Pelosi is too smart to expect plaudits for trying to deter war rather than simply standing firm behind a status quo that will inevitably produce the next one. READERS OF this column know that I like to hearken back to the great missed opportunity of 1971. That was when Prime Minister Golda Meir rebuffed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's call on Israel to pull back from the Suez Canal. Sadat said that in exchange for a pullback of just a few miles - which would enable Egypt to re-open the canal - he would begin negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Last week Yediot Aharonot revealed new information about the missed opportunity. Zeev Tzahor reports that then-American secretary of state, William Rogers, was so disturbed by Golda's rejection that he enlisted David Ben Gurion, to try to persuade her to, at least, seriously consider the offer. Let the Yediot columnist, Zeev Tzahor, tell the rest of the story: "The 85-year-old Ben-Gurion was retired… His relations with Golda were poor, and he was not particularly eager to speak with her. Rogers implored him. The Egyptian initiative is a one-time opportunity, he said, but Golda has taken a dismissive, supercilious view of it. She admires you, maybe she'll heed your advice. Ben-Gurion acquiesced, and asked his aides to put him in touch with Golda in Jerusalem. "The brief conversation between them was acerbic. The people present in the room heard Ben-Gurion repeat why she ought to begin negotiations with Egypt…. While the people present in the room could not hear what Golda was saying on the other side of the line, it was clear to them that she was not interested in promoting the Egyptian initiative. "Ben-Gurion lost his patience, lambasted Golda and said she was leading Israel to catastrophe, and terminated the conversation. For some reason, he placed the receiver down on the table and not in its cradle. The people present in the room heard Golda calling, 'Ben-Gurion, Ben-Gurion,'" but he refused to pick up the telephone again. He just kept repeating, "war is going to break out soon, war is coming." It did. Israel lost nearly 3000 men. Ben Gurion died a few weeks later. Israel ended up relinquishing not just the west bank of the Suez Canal, as Sadat had demanded but every last inch of the Sinai peninsula. Until this week, I had never heard that Secretary of State William Rogers tried so hard to help Israel avert catastrophe. All I recalled about him was that the pro-Israel community despised him because he was thought to have applied pressure on Israel. Little did I know that the pressure was in the form of the wise counsel of David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the Jewish state. I hope Pelosi is not daunted by the criticism emanating from all the usual suspects. Her delegation's visit to the Middle East advanced America's interests and Israel's too. As they like to say in that region: the dogs bark but the caravan moves on. The writer is the director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.