April 12, 2007

On the Pelosi-Lantos visit to Syria

I have been assigned to several American embassies in the Middle East, including a tour as the air attaché in Syria. I became intimately involved in all official visits – the “AIRA” is responsible for arrangements (clearances, fuel, ramp space, security, etc.) for the U.S. Air Force aircraft that transport the delegations. I was (un)fortunate enough to be the AIRA for President Clinton’s visit to Damascus in 1994. (See The Arrogance of Power - A Presidential Visit.)

I supported scores of Congressional and State Department trips during my tenure in Damascus. The State Department trips were mostly “shuttle diplomacy” visits by the Secretary of State – tough meetings with the late Syrian strongman Hafiz Al-Asad and equally hard-line Israeli politicians. That’s what diplomacy is, that’s why the embassy is there, that was my job.

However, the impression among most of the embassy officers in Damascus – home to one of the world’s greatest bazaars – was that the trips by members of Congress were usually thinly-disguised shopping junkets. The offenders were of both parties. I remember multiple trips by Senator Arlen Spector and Representative Tom Lantos. Spector even insisted on one trip that the aircraft fly him first into Aleppo – Syria’s second largest city located six hours drive north of Damascus – rather than into the capital city. The reason: he liked the Aleppo bazaar better than the one in Damascus. Of course, we all had to be in Aleppo to support the visit there. At least I got to ride on the jet back to Damascus….

That’s bad enough, but at least these boondoggles were harmless - a few low-level meetings with some Syrian officials to justify the use of a U.S. Air Force jet, then multiple “shop ‘til you drop” sorties through the Al-Hamidiyah suq and the shops along A Street Called Straight.

Enter Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Not content to conduct some oversight of the embassy and meet with Syrian counterparts, she decided to conduct some diplomacy with a state we are trying to isolate and marginalize. The U.S. ambassador was recalled to Washington in the wake of Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri in February 2005.

Any visit by an American official only legitimizes the Bashar Al-Asad regime. A visit by the Speaker of the House was a huge propaganda coup for the Syrians. The Syrian press lauded her efforts and cited the opening of a “dialogue” between Washington and Damascus. The Speaker even botched delivering a message from the Israelis. Next time, Nancy, skip the palace and buy a carpet – I can refer you to a good merchant. I don’t question your right to visit Syria, I just question how badly you did it.

To make matters worse, Speaker Pelosi and colleague Tom Lantos, who accompanied her to Syria, are talking about a trip to Iran. Lantos said he is ready to go to Iran and open a dialogue with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Great – an official visit to Iran. Iran – the country that is providing deadly munitions that are killing American soldiers in Iraq. A country that is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, a country whose president wants to eliminate the State of Israel, and a country with which we do not have diplomatic relations. At least there is an embassy in Syria. Oh, I forgot – there is an American embassy in Tehran, but it was taken over by the Iranian “students” in 1979. Tom, Nancy – you do remember that, right? Coming as no surprise, the vice-speaker of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) welcomes such a visit.

Here’s a thought – stay at home and work on legislation that provides funding for American troops in combat.