The White House Gets Neighborly in the Middle East

Lawmakers and congressional staff members showed their support for Spay Day USA by bringing in their dogs.
Lawmakers and congressional staff members showed their support for Spay Day USA by bringing in their dogs. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

On Jan. 11, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat at the witness table in Hearing Room 106 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building explaining why "those who talk about engagement with Syria and Iran" are all wet. "That's not diplomacy -- that's extortion," she said.

Yesterday, Rice returned to the same green-felt-covered witness table in the same hearing room. "I'm pleased to inform you that the Iraqis are launching a new diplomatic initiative, which we are going to fully support," Rice announced cheerfully.

And guess who's coming to dinner: Iran and Syria.

"The government of Iraq is preparing for an expanded neighbors meeting," Rice said, as if announcing a block party. "Invitees would include Iraq's immediate neighbors."

It was as high-profile a reversal as the Bush administration had ever made -- and it came too suddenly for Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va), who didn't have time to update his opening statement. "There is," he thundered from the dais, "no plan for diplomacy."

When the Iraq Study Group in December proposed talking with Iran and Syria -- and lawmakers from both parties seconded the recommendation -- the administration summarily dismissed the idea. But yesterday, Rice was an eager hostess awaiting RSVPs from Tehran and Damascus.

"I don't know if they've accepted," she told the committee. "But we certainly will be there."

For a Bush administration that has long been criticized for arrogance and intransigence on Iraq, yesterday was a rare day of contrition.

It began with Mike McConnell, the new national intelligence director, volunteering to the Senate Armed Services Committee the spy agencies' grim conclusion: "The current security and political trends in Iraq are moving in a negative direction."

Next came the new defense secretary, Robert Gates, who, sitting at the witness table with Rice, provided more somber judgments on Iraq. "We face, in essence, four different wars," he said. "And the National Intelligence Estimate would add a fifth."

Finally, there was the secretary of state, freely admitting that the administration, in talking to Iran and Syria, is responding to its congressional critics. "It is an important dimension that many in the Senate and in the Congress have brought to our attention," she said.

"That," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told her, "is a good development."

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