Bad Behavior Brings Good Results

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) apparently has a penchant for badness. For visiting Syria, the Speaker received a harsh reprimand by Vice President Dick Cheney who thought it “bad behavior.” Though the Speaker remained relatively un-phased by the scolding, Cheney made his point.

The warning contained a deeper meaning—one that the Speaker understood immediately and that may explain why she passed on House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Lantos’ (D-CA) recommendation to do the same with Iran.

Take a closer look at Cheney’s criticism and two questions arise. Does bad behavior connote an undermining of U.S. foreign policy, i.e. that U.S. officials should not engage in direct dialogue with adversaries? Or, does bad behavior suggest that the legislative branch should not, under any circumstances, challenge the executive branch?

According to Cheney, it’s the latter. In a radio appearance, the veep said, “The President is the one who conducts foreign policy, not the speaker of the House.” But before examining the schism widening between legislative and executive branches on foreign policy issues, the former point—i.e. should the U.S. dialogue with adversaries—needs attention.

Past Presidents Did It

The Administration’s policy of no direct dialogue with adversaries, even when such talks are specifically encouraged by the prominent Iraq Study Group, is unprecedented in the executive branch. In fact, such “bad behavior” was prudently exercised by previous presidents, often bringing good results.

Bad-boy President Dwight Eisenhower invited Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to the U.S. in an effort to “melt a little bit of the ice that seems to freeze our relationships with the Soviets.” Interestingly, much of the thawing between the two leaders occurred on Eisenhower’s farm, as the U.S. president knew well that such cordial informality was politically disarming.

President Richard Nixon had his share of badness by talking with China in 1972. Shame on him? Not really. Nixon’s unconventional risk-taking opened up decades of isolation and estrangement. The first U.S. president to visit China, Nixon’s willingness to talk with the “enemy” instigated what many believe to be the de-escalation of a precipiced conflict with communist China.

In contrast, President George W. Bush has yet to talk with Syria directly, despite recommendations by foreign policy notables James Baker, Lee Hamilton, Dennis Ross, Brent Scowcroft, and Richard Haas to do so. While indirect dialogue with Syria vis-à-vis Iraq is already yielding positive results, direct dialogue has the potential to produce substantively more in terms of Syrian-Israeli, Lebanese-Syrian, and U.S.-Syrian relations.

However, this issue—to dialogue or not—does not appear to be the core of Cheney’s concern with Pelosi. Remember, “The president is the one who conducts foreign policy, not the speaker of the House.” Going with Cheney’s theme, what is the role of the legislative branch, then, if not to conduct foreign policy? To represent the will of the people perhaps? If so, then Pelosi was conducting her job appropriately.

The American People Want It

Look at what the American people are saying. In a recent poll conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, 75% thought the U.S. should hold talks with Syria. Pew Research Center’s poll in the same month showed similar statistics: 69% favored talks with Syria. It appears that Pelosi was merely representing her constituency, the very job she is elected to do.

In doing so, Pelosi’s visit to Damascus may not have produced breakthroughs, but that was not the point. Diplomatic engagement was the point. There were no threats, no orders, and no ultimatums. Soft power of this sort will salvage what remains of American credibility in an environment where anti-Americanism runs high. Hard power, meanwhile, has no chance of recovering dwindling U.S. prestige in the Middle East. President Clinton understood this and so does Pelosi.

Cheney’s claim the legislative branch has no business conducting foreign policy hints at a widening schism between the branches birthed by the nation’s founding fathers. Given the Democrats’ timidity to challenge the Iraq War, Pelosi’s efforts to dialogue with Syria, against the will of the executive branch, is a surprising and impressive assertion of its authority. America’s founding fathers would be proud.

It’s also making Syria proud. Damascus is finally taken seriously by Washington and given a platform to voice its grievances on the Golan Heights. At long last, diplomacy, albeit legislative not executive, is forging the foundation for further more substantive negotiations. It’s remarkable what a little dialogue and a little legislative liberty will garner. Far more than the executive branch has been able to muster in Iraq or Iran.

Michael Shank is a PhD student at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Marwan Kabalan is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences, Damascus University, Syria. They are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.