The last time House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did her best impersonation of a secretary of state, her amateur performance was merely reckless. This time it is dangerous.
Pelosi's April visit to Syria should have demonstrated a fundamental about diplomacy words matter.
Pelosi created an international tempest by claiming to bear a message for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, one stating his country was prepared to engage in peace talks with its longtime enemy without preconditions. That would have marked a significant departure from six decades of Israeli practice.
Olmert did not make such a departure, which forced the Israeli Foreign Ministry to issue a clarification that contradicted Pelosi's supposed communique.
Pelosi also declared that the road to peace in Lebanon, which Syrian Baathists regard as a vassal state, runs through Damascus. Farid Ghadry, president of the Reform Party of Syria, blasted Pelosi's carelessness, writing, "Assad is viewing her trip as a green light to take over Lebanon the same way Saddam viewed (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April) Glaspie's lack of interference as a green light to invade Kuwait."
Unlike Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who prefaced the dialogue with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with a harsh rebuke of his government's repressive policies, Pelosi's photo-op notably glossed over Assad's totalitarian tendencies and his regime's routine violation of human rights.
This month, 92 years after the fact, Pelosi felt the time had come for American lawmakers to finally issue a definitive statement about the first state-sponsored mass murder of the 20th century. When the Armenian genocide issue came up in 2000, one of its most forceful opponents was California Democrat Tom Lantos. The Fresno Bee reports Lantos warned against offending Turkey, telling colleagues that "there is a long list of reasons why our NATO ally at this point should not be humiliated."
Some of those reasons were related to U.S. enforcement of a U.N. no-fly zone in northern Iraq no access to U.S. bases in Turkey, no no-fly zone. President Clinton felt the security imperatives in Iraq outweighed the political significance of a congressional declaration in Washington. So he appealed to members of his own party, including Lantos, to delay the genocide resolution and, ultimately, to GOP House Speaker Denny Hastert to kill it.
Now that the United States has 168,000 military personnel in Iraq, it's a different story on Capitol Hill. Lantos, as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, dismisses Turkish sensitivity. "The Turkish-American relationship is infinitely more valuable to Turkey than it is to the United States," he said recently on CNN.
President Bush appealed to Congress to put the welfare of American military personnel first. Most military air cargo headed for Iraq passes through Turkey's Incirlik air base, including new MRAP mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that are finally providing a measure of protection against deadly IED attacks. No Incirlik, no MRAPs, or at least their delivery to the war zone will be delayed. Contrary to Lantos' assertion, more Americans will die if the United States loses access to bases in Turkey.
Yet unlike her predecessor as speaker, Pelosi pushed forward with the genocide resolution, in spite of the known consequences. Assuming the guise of secretary of state again, she said it was part of her mandate to reassert America's moral authority. By end of week, cooler heads appeared to be prevailing.
Congress should go on record about the atrocities that claimed 1.5 million Armenian lives. Historical amnesia about the systematic slaughter of Armenians has encouraged many of the genocidal movements that followed. But after nine decades and with a war in Iraq, now is not the time to put U.S.-Turkish relations to a test.
Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell sent Pelosi a letter last month warning her the resolution would endanger U.S. national security interests. A real secretary of state would already know that.