Traveling with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on her controversial trip to the Middle East, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter on Thursday strongly defended their meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying Democratic lawmakers are doing the kind of common-sense diplomatic work that the Bush administration has scorned for years.
In a telephone interview from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Slaughter said Pelosi and the rest of the congressional delegation delivered a stern message to Assad earlier this week: that the United States is very concerned that insurgents are entering Iraq from Syria.
"We think a lot of the problems that have gone on in Iraq are really instigated here, in this part of the world," Slaughter said.
That being the case, Slaughter, D-Fairport, echoed the advice of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which said discussions with Syria and Iran are key to ending the chaos in Iraq.
"Beyond that, the generals on the ground in Iraq have made it very clear . . . we can't win a military victory without a diplomatic victory," Slaughter said. "And you can't win a diplomatic victory if we're not talking to people."
Nevertheless, President Bush has steadfastly refused to open talks with Syria, widely seen as a state sponsor of the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
Asked about Pelosi's visit to Syria on Tuesday, Bush said: "Sending delegations hasn't worked. It's just simply been counterproductive."
And after Pelosi said she is "determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace," Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said: "Unfortunately, that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah and the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq."
Such criticism came as no surprise to Slaughter.
"This is such a typical White House maneuver," she said. "If you
do something they don't want you to do, they try to destroy you. They try to question your patriotism and everything else."
Noting that the United States maintained diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union all through the Cold War, Slaughter stressed that Pelosi's delegation delivered a tough message to Assad.
The members of Congress criticized Syria's ties to Hamas and Hezbollah, Slaughter said. In addition, "We didn't let up on anybody about the open borders and allowing insurgents across, as [Pelosi] puts it, to the detriment of the Iraqi people and our soldiers."
Pelosi also has been widely criticized for leaving a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Israel on Sunday and saying he was "ready to engage in peace talks" with Syria.
That statement prompted Olmert's office to issue a statement saying: "What was communicated to the U.S. House speaker does not contain any change in the policies of Israel." And in response, the Washington Post ran an editorial attacking Pelosi's "attempt to establish a shadow presidency," saying it undermined Bush's Middle East policy.
But Slaughter said she was in the room and heard Olmert say he wanted to talk to Assad, particularly about the volatile Golan Heights.
Slaughter said Pelosi's delegation which includes four other Democratic representatives and Republican Rep. David Hobson of Ohio -- was making a real contribution to Middle East peace on its trip, which also included a stop in Lebanon.
In particular, Slaughter praised Pelosi, a longtime friend and ally.
"She's done an incredible job," Slaughter said. "I'm so proud of her."
And Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, one of the Republicans who visited Assad earlier in the week, defended the right of lawmakers to visit Syria.
"I don't care what the administration says on this," he said. "You've got to do what you think is in the best interest of your country."
News wire services contributed to this report.