Speaker's Role In Foreign Policy Is a Recent, and Sensitive, Issue

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called her talks with Syrian President Bashir al-Assad
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called her talks with Syrian President Bashir al-Assad "very productive." (By Amr Nabil -- Associated Press)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007

The question to former president Jimmy Carter yesterday was: Is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a better envoy to the Middle East than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice?

Carter, a diplomat himself, demurred. But his interlocutor had put a finger squarely on a sore spot -- some would say in the eye of -- the Bush White House. By law, Congress must keep out of diplomacy. In history, House speakers and lawmakers have crossed that line, some with the blessing of the president and some against his wishes.

Foreign policy experts generally agree that Pelosi's dealings with Middle East leaders have not strayed far, if at all, from those typical for a congressional trip. But in a nation deeply divided over America's role and standing in the world, the Democratic-led Congress's push into foreign policy has prompted a ferocious reaction from a White House doubly protective of its turf.

"Arguably for the first time since World War II, the U.S. is as polarized on foreign policy as it is on domestic policy, and that makes it all the more significant when a member of the opposition is engaged in direct contact with foreign governments," said Charles Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. "This is the Democrats throwing down the gauntlet and saying, 'The American public lost confidence. It behooves the new Congress to chart a new course.' "

Pelosi (D-Calif.) and aides have described the trip as little different than the visit paid to Syria the same week led by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.): an effort to improve relations through contact. Engaging Syria and Iran, after all, were recommended by the Iraq Study Group as a key to stabilizing Iraq. Yesterday, Pelosi called her talks with Syrian President Bashir al-Assad "very productive," in terms of the "path to peace," and delivered word that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is ready to engage in peace talks with Syria.

Bush said yesterday that Pelosi's overture sends "mixed signals." The administration has largely avoided direct contact with Syria, which it considers a state sponsor of terrorism.

International uproar over a House speaker is something relatively new, said Brookings scholar Thomas E. Mann. Until the past three decades or so, "Speakers were not only invisible in this country but invisible around the world," he said. But beginning in 1977, when Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D-Mass.) took the speaker's chair, "They're received around the world as serious and substantive players, [but] that doesn't mean they're in a position to dramatically change or undermine policy."

One who came close to the latter, Mann said, was Jim Wright, the Democrat from Texas. A passage in the book "A Question of Balance: the President, the Congress, and Foreign Policy," edited by Mann, reads: "Critics of Congress often raise the specter of '535 secretaries of State' gratuitously and as political cover for a policy disagreement. In the case of Speaker Wright's November 1987 attempt at 'alternative track diplomacy,' however, the charge holds to a greater degree than usual. Wright injected himself directly into the [Nicaraguan] peace process. . . . These . . . were more than the normal consultative or informational sessions. Substantive negotiations were being conducted."

The next speaker, Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), by contrast, traveled widely with few repercussions, Mann recalled. In 1997, Clinton appointed Foley the ambassador to Japan, a role he served until 2001.

Other speakers have gotten themselves into hot water. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) infuriated the Clinton White House by working directly with Colombian police officials on their U.S. aid requests, bypassing diplomatic channels.

Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who served as speaker after Republicans won the House in 1994, recalls that the "only time that came anywhere close" to stepping onto diplomatic territory "was I made a comment in Israel that was too strong." In a speech to the Israeli parliament he said that he considers Jerusalem "the united and eternal capital of Israel." The White House, engaged in Middle East peace talks, was furious. "I said afterward that I was wrong," he recalled.

"There's an enormous psychological difference between normal members and the speaker" -- Congress's most powerful individual, third in line to the presidency, Gingrich said. Especially abroad, he said, House speakers "have to move with exceptional care."

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.

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