It may be fair for the White House and its allies to characterize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Syria as amateur night diplomacy. But when the professionals are nowhere to be seen -- and didn't inspire much confidence when they were around -- somebody has to step up.
Pelosi, with Rep. Louise M. Slaughter of Fairport as part of her entourage, met the other day with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, between stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration isn't speaking to Assad these days, and doesn't think Pelosi should have called on him, either.
The administration accuses Assad's government of sponsoring anti-Israeli terror groups and of helping, or at least not stopping, anti-American insurgents strike over his border into Iraq. Administration policy is to freeze Assad, as well as the leaders of Iran, out of the company of civilized nations.
There's no particular reason to disagree with the administration's description of what Syria is up to. And were Pelosi or anyone else treating Assad as someone who just needed a hug, then the White House criticism of the speaker's mission would have some validity to it. But even though Pelosi might not have been sufficiently firm in her talks with Assad, and in her public description of what those talks included, somebody has to be opening channels of communication with regimes, however odious, that have as much influence on events in the Middle East as does Assad.
Pelosi did have to issue a couple of awkward clarifications during her tour. A statement about how Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was ready to negotiate with Syria was quickly clarified to emphasize the widely known condition that the talks could come only after Syria renounces all support for terrorism. But at least she's got some statements to clarify. The administration's professional diplomats have made a big show of zipping their lips and making no effort to win Assad's assent for anything of benefit to the United States, to Israel or to the future government of Iraq.
As Slaughter, New York's practical-minded representative, pointed out, engaging Syria was a recommendation of Bush's own Iraq Study Group, headed by Bush's very own deal-maker, James H. Baker. And even our own military says a military solution in Iraq is not an option, unless and until it follows a diplomatic victory.
Pelosi was a long way from a diplomatic victory in Damascus. But her single, awkward step was a lot bigger than anything the Bush White House has done, or seems likely to do.