House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., obliquely defended her decision to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad later this week in direct defiance of President Bush's policy not to engage in one-on-one talks with Syrian officials.
"The time to leverage all our power is now. And the way to do it is through diplomacy, with stronger sanctions and smarter policy," Pelosi said in an address to the Israeli Knesset, where she was dramatically introduced as "Her Excellency, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives," after a band played the Israeli and American national anthems.
Pelosi did not mention her trip to Syria, but her meaning was clear.
"We in Congress will do everything in our power to seek a policy that makes America and our friends safer and the region more stable by sharing responsibility for Iraqi stability with Iraqis and their neighbors," Pelosi said.
Her visit to Syria was given support by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who urged her to convey the message to Assad that Israel would be willing to hold talks with Syria -- if Syria would take steps to stop supporting terrorism. But he also said Israel would not talk with Syria under current conditions.
White House spokesman Dan Bartlett today expanded on deputy spokesman Dana Perino's statement that visiting Syria was "a really bad idea."
"We don't believe we should be sending these types of mixed signals to the leaders of a country that is on the state sponsor of terrorism list," Bartlett said on CBS' "Face the Nation" program.
The speaker's visit marks the latest split in a government with dueling foreign policies, one from the White House and another from Pelosi and newly empowered Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Last week, the Senate joined the House in setting a deadline for American troops to withdraw from Iraq. Bush vowed to veto both bills.
Pelosi was defiant, saying, "Calm down with the threats. There is a new Congress in town. We respect your constitutional role. We want you to respect ours."
Lee Hamilton, the former congressman who also co-chaired the Iraq Study Group, said Pelosi's visit is just the kind of diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors that the group recommended to the president in January.
"Speaker Pelosi and the other members of Congress with her are taking an important and positive initiative," Hamilton said in an interview with ABC News. "It's a sign of good sense. You talk to people to try and resolve problems. If you don't talk to people you're not going to resolve the problem."
Syria's president agreed in a recent interview with ABC's Dianne Sawyer.
"First of all, the problem in Iraq is political," Assad said. "We're not the only player, we're not the single player, but we are the main player in this issue."
This week the State Department warned that 90 percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq enter the country by crossing the Syrian border.
"Nancy Pelosi, having undercut our troops in the field, is now going off to Syria to pay her respects to Bashar Assad, who's allowing terrorists to come across the border to kill American troops," Bill Kristol said on "Fox News Sunday."
The Bush administration has ruled out one-on-one talks with Syria, but not ruled out all contact. U.S. diplomats will join in talks Iraq has called for next month with its neighbors, including Syria.