Pelosi Syria trip part of foreign policy battle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to defy the White House and meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad steps up a tug-of-war between Democrats and President George W. Bush over foreign policy.

Syrian ambassador to the United States Imad Moustafa (L) greets U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (R) and Congress members as they arrive to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus April 4, 2007. REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi

Despite Bush’s admonitions that the talks were “counterproductive” and sent “mixed signals,” Pelosi on Wednesday sat down with Assad, accused by Washington of backing terrorism and adding to Middle East instability.

Newly empowered Democrats, already doing battle with Bush over who really is the “decider” on Iraq policy, are taking a more assertive role on foreign policy.

Believing voters gave them control of Congress in November based on their opposition to the Iraq war, Democrats are trying to force Bush to accept a date for withdrawing U.S. troops.

Polls are on their side. A Newsweek survey released last weekend showed 57 percent of Americans support the Democrats’ plan to begin pulling out combat forces, with 36 percent rejecting it.

But critics worry that Congress is overreaching.

“Our president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, we are at war in Iraq, and if the speaker or other members are meeting with a nation that may be supporting our opponents in the war, that is inappropriate,” said Brian Darling, a congressional analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.

“It is Condoleezza Rice’s job to be our secretary of state and head diplomat, not the speaker of the House,” he said.

This is not the first Congress -- nor the first House speaker -- to confront a president over foreign policy.

“There is no question that the Democrats are feeling they can challenge the president now, because his public support is down, and in particular they are challenging him about an unpopular policy,” said American University professor of international relations Phil Brenner.


In the 1980s, then-Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright infuriated the Reagan White House by meeting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. The Reagan administration had given financial and military support to Ortega’s opponents.

Wright’s maverick role in Central American peace talks earned him the nickname “Speaker of State.”

“This is not just about divided government,” Brenner said. “It’s about Congress playing a safety valve role, when the president goes too far away from what the mainstream think is reasonable.”

Democrats justify Pelosi’s trip by citing the bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s call for a greater diplomatic effort with Syria and Iran to help quell violence in Iraq. The Bush administration has resisted, although some U.S. officials recently met Syrian and Iranian representatives in a regional conference on Iraq.

Pelosi, a California Democrat, is next in line to the U.S. presidency after the vice-president and her high-level talks with al-Assad drew international headlines. The United States withdrew its ambassador to Syria in early 2005.

Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, says the Democrats have not really fleshed out an alternative foreign policy.

“No one is assuming that Pelosi is going over there with some big radical approach for how to deal with Syria,” he said.

The struggle over who controls U.S. foreign policy will never be resolved, because executive and legislative branches share responsibility under the Constitution, said Henry Nau, professor of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University.

For example, the president negotiates treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. Congress declares war, but the president is commander-in-chief.

“The Democrats are going to keep doing what they are doing as long as the polls suggest ... that maybe 60 percent of the American people want a change in direction in Iraq,” Nau said.