The Consequences of Pelosi’s Visit to Syria

The recent visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Syria was the occasion of much discussion as to the appropriateness of the visit. Did the trip represent wise policy, a way to reduce Syrian provocations in Iraq and Lebanon? Did the trip intrude upon the Constitutional prerogatives of the President? If the trip had been clearly successful, questions about Constitutional propriety would be quickly forgotten. However, just the opposite has happened.

The New York Observer recently reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad concluded from the trip that the American public was split on foreign policy and that is now safe to oppose American interests. The immediate effect was a crack down on dissidents. The New York Observer quotes a woman’s rights activist in Syria as complaining that “Pelosi’s visit made the regime feel that Americans were divided on how to deal with Syria…This sends a message to the regime that the pressure is off, that it can do what it likes.” Pelosi’s visit allowed Syria to feel freer to sentence Syrian dissident Kamal Labwani for daring to meet with American officials during a visit to Washington in 2005.

Pelosi’s visit also did not alleviate Syrian meddling with its neighbors and perhaps accelerated it. There are credible reports that Syria is now smuggling arms and munitions to Fatah Al-Islam, a terrorist group which is destabilizing Lebanon and triggering violent clashes with the Lebanese army. Pelosi’s visit did not preclude these actions, and it is at least possible that the visit made it a little easier in Assad’s mind to exercise his destructive influence in Lebanon.

Pelosi’s present ideas seem to contradict ones from her past. In 2003, she argued that “One of the lessons learned thus far in the war on terrorism is that there can be no success without disrupting the support networks on which terrorists rely. Rhetoric has thus far not been effective in encouraging the Syrian government to cease its assistance to terrorists, and to remove its forces from Lebanon.” Now in 2007, Pelosi appears enamored by the potential effectiveness of rhetoric and discussion. It is difficult to escape the notion that she visited Syria because the Bush Administration opposed such a high-level contact. If President George Bush did not want her to visit Syria, to Pelosi this was dispositive evidence that she should visit.

Pelosi’s problem is not a lack of good intentions. She certainly wants Syria to reduce the oppression of its citizens and its destabilizing actions on neighboring countries. As a consequence of their adult experience and the nature of their professions, politicians from democracies suffer from the conceit that all differences are splittable and agreements can always be reached through discussions. By contrast, tyrants, who rule by force and not through popular assent, desperately seek legitimacy. Friendly visits from high-level, democratically-elected leaders lend such legitimacy. Politicians, like Pelosi, consider such visits as simple courtesies, not as concessions. Unintentionally, Pelosi’s visit handed Assad a victory without extracting any comparable concession from Assad.

It is sometimes necessary to communicate with bloody regimes like Assad’s. In such cases, it is possible to send middle-level officials discretely or to work through intermediaries. The moral authority granted by the visits of high-level officials should be reserved for those cases when a comparable concession is extracted.

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