- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s dialogue with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem on Friday was at least in part a response to the pounding that the administration has taken for its supposed refusal to talk to rogue states like Syria. After the meeting, Rep. Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Rice-Moallem discussion at a conference in Egypt shows how foolish the White House was to criticize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for going to Damascus last month to meet Syrian President Bashar Assad. Mr. Lantos, who accompanied Mrs. Pelosi to Damascus, said Miss Rice should know “the great value of face-to-face discussion, even [with] those with whom we strongly disagree.”

But the implicit premise of Mr. Lantos’s comments — that the backward-thinking Bush administration has refused to talk with Syria — is false. Between 2001 and the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Washington sent at least five high-level delegations to Syria in an effort to persuade Mr. Assad to change his behavior. The most publicized of these visits was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s May 2003 trip, where he demanded that Syria stop subverting Iraq. Mr. Assad agreed, but after Mr. Powell left, Syria continued business as usual. All of the other visits, dealing with issues like Syrian support for terrorism and interference in Lebanon, also ended unsuccessfully. David Schenker, adviser to the secretary of defense on Lebanon matters from 2002 through 2006, describes these efforts as miserable failures which: 1) did not change Syrian behavior and 2) were spun by the Syrians as evidence that Washington recognizes that it must work with the Assad regime.

Similarly, the trip Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Lantos took to Damascus last month appears to have been a propaganda coup for Mr. Assad’s Ba’athist dictatorship. Betsy Pisik of The Washington Times, who recently visited Damascus, reported Wednesday that Syrians she interviewed told her that the House speaker’s meetings with Mr. Assad and senior ministers have “shattered Washington’s attempt to isolate the regime.”

On Friday, Miss Rice offered Syria the prospect of a better relationship with the United States if it helps create “stability” in Iraq in the future. While she was meeting with Mr. Moallem, his deputy, Vice Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad, told Mrs. Pisik that no Syrian would participate in any international trial of suspects in the Hariri murder and warned that Lebanon is on the brink of a civil war — a threat, given Syria’s lengthy involvement in violence there. (And it is a particularly sensitive matter for Mr. Moallem, given the fact that U.N. investigators reportedly have a tape of him speaking in a menacing way to Mr. Hariri just weeks before his slaying.) On Saturday, just 48 hours after the Rice-Moallem meeting, Khaled Meshal, head of the Hamas terrorist organization, spoke at a rally in Damascus, where he denounced as a “farce” Miss Rice’s latest proposal to calm Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The Iranian foreign minister, who was supposed to attend a dinner and possibly talk with Miss Rice in Egypt, stormed out of the room, ostensibly to protest the way a female violinist was dressed.

We don’t oppose in principal talking to any nation, rogues included, if it can advance U.S. policy interests. But “dialogue” done for it’s own sake with no serious possibility of achieving anything can be harmful. It’s past time for the Bush-bashers to explain what the administration is supposed to do once the rogues make it clear they have no interest in serious dialogue.

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