House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday defended her whirlwind Middle East peace mission in the face of wide criticism about her choice of words — and fashion — during the trip.
The California Democrat, who touted her visit abroad as fostering diplomacy and following the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation, said yesterday she is spreading “President Bush’s message” of anti-terrorism.
The Bush administration and others all week accused her of overstepping her bounds and making critical gaffes as she, five other Democrats and one Republican met with heads of state in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories. The lawmakers’ goal was to stimulate a regional solution for a peaceful end to the Iraq war.
The speaker’s visit with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, over Mr. Bush’s objections, drew the most ire. It prompted the Wall Street Journal editorial board to wonder whether Mrs. Pelosi was trying to embarrass the president.
Mr. Bush called the trip counterproductive and Vice President Dick Cheney said he was “disappointed” in Mrs. Pelosi, calling her actions in Damascus a signal that the U.S. is rewarding Mr. Assad for his “bad behavior.”
But the speaker told the Associated Press yesterday she thinks the visit proved U.S. leaders are united against terrorism.
“Our message was President Bush’s message,” she told AP. “The funny thing is, I think we may have even had a more powerful impact with our message because of the attention that was called to our trip.
“It became clear to President Assad that even though we have our differences in the United States, there is no division between the president and the Congress and the Democrats on the message we wanted him to receive.”
Mrs. Pelosi also attracted negative headlines for telling Mr. Assad that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent a message with her that he was “ready to engage” in peace talks, a claim Mr. Olmert quickly refuted.
The Washington Post editorial board called the trip “foolish” and an “attempt by a Democratic congressional leader to substitute her own foreign policy for that of a sitting Republican president.”
A Pelosi staffer on the speaker’s Web blog denounced The Post editorial as “poisonous,” and refuted the opinion point by point. The staffer noted that five Republican members who visited the region on a separate trip this week elicited no White House commentary.
As for the message from Mr. Olmert, Mrs. Pelosi said yesterday there was “absolutely no confusion.”
“The message that we carried from Prime Minister Olmert was the exact message that he gave us,” she said on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” “He is a man of peace, and he expressed to us that we should express to the president of Syria his interest in going to the negotiating table — but not until Syria took steps to stop its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. And that is exactly the message that we conveyed.”
Mr. Cheney held nothing back Thursday when appearing on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, saying he wished she had not gone to Syria.
“I think it is, in fact, bad behavior on her part,” he said. “Fortunately I think the various parties involved recognize she doesn’t speak for the United States in those circumstances.”
Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, called the trip “embarrassing.”
“Speaking on matters of foreign policy with one voice is critical for the country,” he said. “That’s why we have highly trained diplomats and other such professionals in the federal government. Whether you agree with a particular administration or not, playing high-profile politics with matters of state is reckless and dangerous for the country.”
USA Today said the speaker “crossed a line” by meeting with Mr. Assad. A guest columnist in the Wall Street Journal suggested she may have violated a law forbidding Americans from talking to foreign governments without U.S. authority if they are trying to “influence that government’s behavior on any ‘disputes or controversies with the United States.’ ”
Conservative group Move America Forward used the Pelosi-Bush dust-up over Syria in a fundraising e-mail, saying the money would help it “respond to this despicable conduct by Ms. Pelosi and others in the anti-war movement.”
Even her choice of dress — a head scarf in a Syrian mosque and pastel pantsuits — drew scorn from conservative bloggers this week.
Also on the trip were Reps. Tom Lantos and Henry A. Waxman, both California Democrats, Nick J. Rahall II, West Virginia Democrat, Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat, and Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat and the only Muslim member of Congress.
Rep. David L. Hobson of Ohio, the lone Republican on the delegation, defended Mrs. Pelosi as helping the administration, according to the Dayton Daily News.
“We reinforced the administration’s positions and at the same time we were trying to understand and maybe getting some voice to some things people wanted to say that maybe they were not comfortable saying to the administration,” he told the newspaper.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported Mrs. Pelosi’s group got a “warm welcome” from Middle East press, and quoted several reports, including one Jordanian newspaper saying the Syria visit is a “step in the right direction.”
Also yesterday, staffers for Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer revealed the Maryland Democrat had spent the past week on his own congressional delegation of six Democrats and four Republicans to Sudan, Egypt, Greece and Germany.