House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria in 2007 despite a stern confidential memo from the Bush administration warning her she would be used by the renegade regime as a propaganda prop.
Today, Republicans say the trip was worthless, muddled Washington’s message to terrorist-supporting Damascus and did nothing to change President Bashar Assad’s support of U.S. adversaries Hizballah, Hamas and Iran.
The March 2007 memo came from the Pentagon unsolicited to Pelosi’s national security adviser and was unearthed this month by a Washington watchdog group.
The speaker disregarded the memo, traveled to Syria and met for three hours with dictator Assad. The face-to-face came at a time when the hardline regime was allowing al Qaeda suicide bombers to pass through its borders into Iraq to kill American service members and innocent civilians.
The Pentagon memo warned her that Assad’s state-controlled media would capitalize on her visit by spewing propaganda about how a visit by the third-in-line to the U.S. presidency stamped the regime with legitimacy.
"High-level U.S. visitors to Damascus complicate our efforts to dissuade regional partners and others from visiting Syria and send the Syrians and the world the wrong message," the memo said. "The Syrians are always looking for a way out of their isolation and tend to misinterpret and misrepresent messages delivered by high-level visitors, regardless of how strong a message is delivered privately."
The memo sharply criticized four U.S. senators who had visited Syria, saying all had been "exploited."
The senators, the memo said, "were exploited by the regime to demonstrate a degree of legitimacy and international acceptance that the regime has done nothing to merit. Although each delegation met with Syrian officials in order to deliver a tough message to the regime, in each case, the visit itself become the message delivered by the Syrian government and the Syrian press."
The senators cited in the memo are Democrats Bill Nelson of Florida, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts; and Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
At the time of Pelosi’s visit, the Bush administration was beginning a troop surge in Iraq of some 30,000 combatants in an attempt to turn the tide of battle. Part of the surge involved putting renewed pressure on Assad to stem a flood of terrorists who used Syria as a way station to infiltrate Iraq up and down the border.
Military analysts today credit the surge as one of the most successful strategic moves in U.S. history, snatching, in effect, victory from defeat.
But as the surge was getting under way in January 2007, Pelosi adamantly opposed it, said it was doomed to failure and called on President Bush to instead pull troops out of Iraq.
"Surging forces is a strategy that you have already tried and that has already failed," she said in a letter to Bush co-signed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Like many current and former military leaders, we believe that trying again would be a serious mistake. They, like us, believe there is no purely military solution in Iraq. There is only a political solution.
"Adding more combat troops will only endanger more Americans and stretch our military to the breaking point for no strategic gain. And it would undermine our efforts to get the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future. We are well past the point of more troops for Iraq."
Thus, she arrived in Syria as the highest ranking American political leader opposed to the surge and in favor of a withdrawal exactly what Assad was advocating.
The Bush administration publicly discourage the Pelosi trip. The private Pentagon memo was uncovered by the government watchdog group Judicial Watch in a Freedom of Information request.
Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, top Republican on the House intelligence committee, told Human Events her trip accomplished nothing and tended to muddle Washington’s get-tough message.
"In regards to our foreign policy and trying to change the behavior of Syria, on the surface it did nothing to change Syria’s behavior," Hoekstra said. "If anything, this kind of [visit] sends a message that U.S. foreign policy is confused."
Hoeksta, too, has met Assad, but under different circumstances. He traveled as part of a House delegation in 2002 and carried with him State Department talking points.
By April 2007, however, when Pelosi went to Damascus, Syria’s behavior had, in the view of the Bush administration, hit rock bottom.
The Assad regime was protecting Iraq money and former Saddam Hussein henchmen, as well as allowing a flow of terrorists to Iraq. And it was working to destabilize the Democratic government in Lebanon and was linked to the 2006 assassination of Lebanese Minister of Industry Pierre Gemayel, an anti-Syrian cabinet member.
At least six high-ranking Bush administration delegations, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, met with Assad in Syria between 2003-05. Each time, the Pentagon memo said, he pledged to end the flow of terrorists and leave Lebanon alone.
"Three and a half years later, there has been no demonstrable action on the part of [Syria] to live up to its commitments or provide gestures of goodwill," the memo said.
Today, Syria still backs Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories – both U.S.-designated terror groups. And Iran has been aiding a Syrian nuclear program that seems determined to produce atomic weapons.
"Their linkage to Iran has not decreased," Hoekstra said. "In other activities, they kept moving in a direction that was counter to U.S. foreign policy interest. Syria is still a major concern."
A former senior Pentagon official under Donald Rumsfeld said, "Syria still supports terrorist groups, is not terribly helpful in Iraq or Lebanon, and is committed to Israel’s destruction. I guess you could argue the jury is still out."
After meeting with Assad, Pelosi said, "The road to Damascus is a road to peace."
The Pentagon memo warned her, "We ask that you support our efforts by not further rewarding the Syrian government."