December 13, 2006

Senator Nelson in Damascus - what are you thinking?

On December 13, Florida senator Bill Nelson met with Syrian president Bashar Al-Asad in Damascus. This comes at a critical time for U.S. policy in the region, and Nelson's meddling is not helpful.

Nelson sits on both the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, but this does not make him the Secretary of State. So here we have a powerful and influential Democrat meeting with the leader of a country that not only openly supports Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, but is one of the leading supporters of the insurgency in Iraq and a close ally of the world's major state supporter of terrorism, Iran.

Instead of allowing the U.S. government to speak with one voice - via the executive branch, which is charged with conducting foreign policy - we have "Wild Bill" off mucking up the waters with one of the countries that is part of the problem, not the solution.

After the meeting, Nelson held a press conference. This is standard procedure for these visits. I served at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the 1990's and assisted in many of these Congressional shopping trips - wonder why they always come at Christmas time? The press conference is a tremendous legitimizing event for the Syrian regime. It allows the Syrians to portray themselves to the world that they are a regional player and that American officials seek their counsel.

I am sure the merchants in the Al-Hamidiyah bazaar (one of the best in the world) appreciate Nelson's efforts. But wait - there's more. Even more senators are going to Damascus shortly - John Kerry, Christopher Dodd and Arlen Specter. More photo opportunities for the Syrian regime, more money for the Syrian merchants.

So, what was the result of Nelson's ill-advised visit? According to the senator, Al-Asad indicated "a willingness to cooperate" in better controlling the Syrian-Iraqi border. Nelson passed that startling revelation on to embassy officials, who you can bet were thrilled that he was able to take time from his busy schedule so close to the holidays to help out with our foreign policy. Where do we find such men? Of course Al-Asad said whatever the senator wanted to hear - is anyone surprised by this?

Nelson's boondoggle comes at an inopportune time, following the release of the Iraq Study Group's inane recommendation that we engage Iran and yes, Syria, in a "diplomatic offensive" to help us with the war in Iraq. (Read my earlier article, Iraq Study Group - Iran and Syria part of the problem.) Visits such as these only confuse the issue at a time when the United States needs to be speaking with one voice.

Next time, Bill, shop at home.