Nancy Pelosi’s Syria Head Scarf Controversy
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria has sparked controversy, not just because it is in defiance of White House foreign policy but because of her decision to wear a head scarf and abaya while visiting a mosque.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mingled with Syrians in a market and made the sign of the cross at a Christian tomb Tuesday during a visit to pursue dialogue with the country’s leader. President Bush denounced the trip, saying it sends mixed signals to Syria’s government.
Pelosi’s visit to Syria was the latest challenge to the White House by congressional Democrats, who are taking a more assertive role in influencing policy in the Middle East and the Iraq war. The Bush administration, which accuses President Bashar Assad’s government of supporting terrorism, has resisted calls for direct talks to help ease the crisis in Iraq and make progress in the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
Soon after Pelosi’s arrival in Damascus, Bush criticized her visit. “A lot of people have gone to see President Assad … and yet we haven’t seen action. He hasn’t responded,” he told reporters at a Rose Garden news conference. “Sending delegations doesn’t work. It’s simply been counterproductive.”
Wearing a flowered head scarf and a black abaya robe, Pelosi visited the 8th-century Omayyad Mosque, shaking hands with Syrian women inside and watching men in a religion class sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Glenn Reynolds, AllahPundit, Charles Johnson, and a host of others are in varying stages of outrage over the wear of the hajib. Steve Benen is right, though, that the wear of the head scarf as a deference to the host’s culture is a proper sign of respect for a guest, noting that Laura Bush, Condi Rice, and others have made the same gesture.
Much more problematic, however, is the Speaker of the House contravening American foreign policy by legitimating a hostile government. While the president does not have plenary power over foreign affairs, he both constitutionally and traditionally sets the agenda.
Congress’ role is one of oversight–setting budget parameters, holding executive officials accountable, considering treaties, and the like–not competition. Mark Kleiman rightly notes that, with the majority, that power is substantial.
Greg Djerejian may well be right that the Bush policy of not holding talks with the Assad regime amounts to “bungling amateurism and fake machismo.” At very least, my instincts are that one always talks with other countries, especially hostile ones; after all, we hold negotiations with our enemies during war. Still, that’s not Pelosi’s call to make. If she wants to direct American foreign policy, let her run for president.
UPDATE: Commenter Jeff B and others note a recent trip to Syria by Republican Members and wonder why that’s different.
My views are much closer to John Burgess‘ than Dave Schuler‘s as to the legitimacy and desirability of Members going overseas per se. I have no problem with Nancy Pelosi or other Members taking junkets to inform their legislation, although I do share Schuler’s sense that they are usually taken for less noble purposes.
My specific qualm here is with Pelosi meeting with a foreign head of government despite the request of the nation’s Chief Diplomat not to do so. The United States withdrew its ambassador two years ago to protest the Assad government’s role in murdering former Lebanese Prime Rafik al-Hariri. Meeting with Assad under these circumstances, without the blessing of the president, weakens our negotiating stance and sends the message that the United States government does not speak with a single voice in foreign affairs. That is a dangerous signal.
UPDATE 2: Steven Taylor is similarly unconcerned about Pelosi’s sporting the hijab, has “never been a big fan of members of the legislative branch making big state visits outside of cooperation with the executive branch,” but concedes “members of Congress have every right to make such visits should they choose to.” That’s about right.