National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Why Not Talk?

WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney has accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of "bad behavior" for visiting Damascus and talking to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Look who’s talking — the man who told the world he knew where the weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq in the run-up to the U.S. invasion. Have you heard any apologies or mea culpas from Cheney even after he was proved wrong? Of course not.

And did you hear anything from Cheney repudiating the visits to Syria by Republican congressmen Frank Wolf of Virginia and Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania? Another recent Republican visitor was Rep. Darrel Issa of California. Silence from the veep. That’s because the Bush administration needs every vote it can muster on Capitol Hill to support its disastrous foreign policy.

President Bush accused Pelosi of sending "mixed messages" to Syria. Hardly. Syrian officials are well aware of the constant U.S. trashing of their country as a "terrorist state."

Syria just happens to be sheltering thousands of Iraqi refugees who fled their country as a result of the U.S. invasion and the ensuing civil war. The U.S. has taken in only a few thousand fleeing Iraqis.

Speaking of his trip to Syria, Wolf said: "I don’t care what the administration says on this. You gotta do what you think is in the best interest of your country."

On his return from Syria, Pitts said: "Dialogue is not a sign of weakness. . .It’s a sign of strength."

Even Issa — a strong Bush supporter who met with President Assad — was critical of the administration’s pressure against any contacts with Syria.

"President Bush is the head of state, but he hasn’t encouraged dialogue," Issa said. He also noted that the U.S. and Syria have functioning diplomatic relations.

Pelosi told reporters she thought her congressional team did some good by showing Assad there is solidarity in the U.S. government toward the Middle East.

Pelosi also was bashed for wearing a head scarf in Damascus in a bow to Moslem custom. Some critics will pick on the silliest things to complain about.

I wonder what these same critics would say if she wore a veil when meeting the pope at the Vatican?

It’s noteworthy that the administration didn’t gripe when Pelosi went to Jerusalem and addressed Israeli lawmakers in the Knesset and met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

More important than these small diplomatic openings and attempts to prompt a new dialogue is the further alienation of the U.S. in the Middle East.

Bush should know by now that the U.S. is despised in many Arab countries, including those that were friendly in the past. Iraq is just one of the flash points.

U.S. supplies of cluster bombs to Israel is another issue because those weapons were used in south Lebanon, endangering Lebanese families.

The 40-year occupation and restrictions on the Palestinians on the West Bank is a daily source of tension. But nothing is heard from Bush on the oppression of the Palestinians.

More amazing are the harsh words uttered on March 29 by Saudi King Abdullah who attacked the U.S. military presence in Iraq as an "illegitimate foreign occupation."

The king made the remarks at the opening session of an Arab summit hosted by Abdullah.

"In beloved Iraq, blood is flowing between brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war," said the Saudi monarch, who also denounced Bush’s pro-Israeli policy as "one-sided."

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have had close ties since World War II. But it is beginning to falter because leaders of the kingdom fear that a close alignment with America will hinder Saudi relations in the region.

Bush should be grateful to Pelosi and the other lawmakers who are willing to crack the ice. After all, Bush can hardly brag that his head-in-the-sand policy has been a success.

c.2007 Hearst Newspapers