WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Tuesday visits by U.S. officials like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Syria send “mixed signals” and do nothing to change the behavior of a country the United States accuses of sponsoring terrorism.
The White House has spent days criticizing Pelosi’s visit to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad, saying it just provides the Syrian leader with a photo opportunity to exploit.
“We have made it clear to high-ranking officials, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, that going to Syria sends mixed signals,” Bush said to reporters at the White House.
Pelosi, a Democrat from California, arrived in Syria on Tuesday after saying she had “no illusions, but great hope” about meeting Assad, and she planned to focus on the fight against terrorism.
Members of Congress from both parties, including three Republican congressmen on Sunday, have visited Damascus and met with Assad after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended last year a stepped-up diplomatic effort involving Syria.
Bush, who is locked in a political battle with the Democratic-led Congress over war funding legislation, said Pelosi’s meeting would “lead the Assad government to believe they’re part of the mainstream of the international community.”
He accused Syria of sponsoring terrorism, not doing enough to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq, doing little to rein in militant Hamas and Hezbollah groups and destabilizing the Lebanese democracy.
American and European officials have visited Assad, “and yet we haven’t seen action. In other words, he hasn’t responded,” Bush said.
“So the position of this administration is that the best way to meet with a leader like Assad or people from Syria is in the larger context of trying to get the global community to help change his behavior,” Bush said.
Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who met Assad in Syria in December, defended Pelosi’s trip by saying effective foreign policy often requires talking with unfriendly countries.
“There is certainly no guarantee that we can turn Syria into a more constructive force in the region, but the current policy only guarantees more of the same,” Kerry, who was beaten by Bush in the 2004 presidential election, said in a statement. “Washington can’t remain on the sidelines. Conversation is not capitulation.”