05 April 2007

04 April 2007 – Why Pelosi’s diplomacy won’t work

Much has already been written in the blogosphere about U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Syria and her talks with dictator Bashar al-Assad. President George W. Bush called it “counterproductive,” and critics named it “Pelosi’s bad trip,” a reference to her post-hippie San Francisco constituency. Some Democrats, however, are pointing out that a group of Republicans visited Assad the day before.

That is an important point, not because it suggests Bush’s hypocrisy, but because it shows how little confidence his own party has in his foreign policy leadership. He has not presented a convincing strategy for dealing with the challenges America is facing. (He may have one, and may prefer to keep his cards close to his chest. But he is losing the battle for hearts and minds among Americans, never mind Iraqis.)

Nonetheless, Pelosi’s gambit is not only foolish—since, as Bush rightly pointed out, it will not achieve any real gain—but it is also dangerous. Having two foreign policies is worse than having one bad one. Pelosi (and the Republicans who preceded her) signaled that the U.S. is divided and weak, and that Iran and Syria can hold out for a new administration rather than negotiating with this one.

In other words, Pelosi may have tried to encourage talks, but she achieved exactly the opposite. America’s enemies will continue making life hard for Bush in Iraq by helping terrorists kill Iraqi civilians and American and Iraqi soldiers. Furthermore, Bush’s humiliation will make it harder for him to marshal international consensus on Iran’s nuclear program. That may make military options more, not less, likely.

Herbert Kelman often speaks of two “tracks” of diplomacy. Track One is the official track, where official representatives of different countries meet with each other, both formally and informally, and negotiate. Track Two is the unofficial track, in which prominent citizens, including politicians, meet each other to talk, argue, and exchange ideas. Track Two is meant to support, not substitute for, Track One.

If Track One talks do not exist, then Track Two talks can be used to start them. But the two have to remain separate, for two reasons. First, the authority of the parties involved in Track One talks has to be clear, or else they cannot make binding agreements. And second, the autonomy of the parties involved in Track Two has to be protected, or else they cannot have free and creative discussions with each other.

It is for these reasons that the U.S. Constitution gives the power to conduct foreign policy to the President, and not to the fractious legislative branch. Laws such as the Logan Act of 1799, which forbids individual citizens from conducting unauthorized negotiations with foreign governments, exist for the same reasons. If Pelosi were not the Speaker, she could probably be arrested on her return to the U.S.

It was not wrong for Pelosi to visit the region, or to wear a hijab in a mosque, or even to publicly call for talks between the U.S. and Syria. But to actually conduct those talks herself was absolutely wrong. In a time of war, such actions might even be considered treasonous. Pelosi and the “me, too” rebel Republicans have achieved little except to give comfort to the enemies of the U.S. and of democracy in general.

Pelosi’s real audience was probably not the Syrians or the Iranians, but the American voters, who were meant to get the message that the Democrats represent a real alternative to the Republicans in the all-important 2008 election. If so, I believe that Pelosi and the Democrats have made two fundamental miscalculations, which will come back to haunt them at the ballot box a year and a half from now.

One error is to assume the results of the 2006 elections gave the Democrats a mandate to demand the sudden withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Joseph Lieberman’s victory as an independent over Ned Lamont’s anti-war campaign in Connecticut should have warned them that American voters are not set on pulling out of Iraq. What Americans want is a way forward—which withdrawal cannot provide now.

The other miscalculation is to think the Middle East will look the same next year as it does today. By 2008, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be closer to resolution—or Iran could look even more threatening than it does—and the Democrats’ strange stance could prove profoundly embarrassing. Even if things don’t change much, the Democrats have handed Republicans an issue with which to rally their core voters.

Smart Democrats like Barack Obama are hedging their bets by arguing for withdrawal from Iraq while at the same time backing tough action against Iran and supporting Israel’s right to self-defense. That approach would fail because a pullout from Iraq would embolden Iran and put its missiles hundreds of miles closer to Israel and to Europe. At least he is not trying to be President before he is President.

Pelosi’s diplomatic charade may have made real negotiations more difficult. Her stunt may cost her party votes next November; worse, it may have encouraged the ambitions of dictators and terrorists whose interests and values are fundamentally hostile to America and to any hope of real progress for the people of the region. Bush is partly to blame for America’s lack of vision, but this was a “bad trip” indeed.

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