NEW YORK - One of the most famous characters in fiction, Cervantes' Don Quijote de la Mancha, is credited with saying, "The dogs are barking at us, Sancho, a signal that we are making strides." To remember this sentence now is most appropriate in view of the loud reaction to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's meeting with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Pelosi may achieve what confrontational actions have been unable to do, supported by Assad's assurances that he is being open to peace talks with Israel.
Pelosi's visit was sharply criticised by President Bush, who said that the Speaker's visit undermined US foreign policy. President Bush, however, wasn't critical of the visit to President Assad by a delegation of House members that included Republicans Frank Wolf, Joe Pitts and Robert Aderholt, who met with President Assad before Pelosi.
President Bush's criticism was predictably joined by that of Bill Kristol, Weekly Standard editor and Fox News contributor who stated, "Nancy Pelosi, having undercut our troops in the field, is now going off to see - to Syria to pay her respects to Bashar Assad, who's allowing terrorists to come across the (Iraqi) border to kill American troops."
That criticism seems to ignore the fact that Pelosi was able to achieve, in a short visit, what a continuous belligerent attitude by the Bush administration has been unable to achieve, and which may very well pave the way for serious peace talks and, eventually, peace with Israel.
Pelosi not only conveyed to President Assad a message from Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel is also open to peace negotiations with Syria. She also expressed her concern about Syria's alleged connections and support to Hamas, the issue of fighters entering Iraq through the Syrian border and the still unresolved situation of Israeli soldiers being held captive by militant groups.
President Bush, who in his criticism of Pelosi's visit, called Syria a "state sponsor of terror", seemed to ignore one of the most important conclusions of its own designated Iraq Study Group's recommendations: that the US should start direct talks with Iran and Syria aimed at solving the present chaotic situation in Iraq.
One of the most persistent negative factors hindering peace in the Middle East in recent times has been the inability of the main actors to even start negotiations, and to demand as a pre-condition for holding talks what should be the final objective of a negotiation process: cessation of support of groups that promote violence and/or the formal recognition of the State of Israel.
Also, by systematically demonising both the Iranian and Syrian presidents, the Bush administration has ignored a basic historical reality, that each country has the foreign policy that is convenient to its own interests and, unless those interests are taken into account, every negotiation is bound to fail. As a contrast, Pelosi has indicated that she is willing to talk to every government that has an interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq.
For Pelosi, this is a unique opportunity to show that a different, open approach can be more beneficial than a systematic denial of other parties' concerns. Her opening talks with Syria should also be aimed at obtaining Syria's co-operation on the issue of the captive Israeli soldiers.
Solving this issue could dramatically alter the present climate of antagonism in the Middle East and lead hopefully to more productive peace talks.
By advancing the Middle East peace agenda, Pelosi may prove to be a more astute politician than many of her male colleagues ever thought her to be.
© Gulf Times Newspaper, 2007