Dec. 13, 2006 -- While President Bush continued consultations with military officials on the way forward in Iraq, Democrats, stirred by the delay in Bush's planned Iraq address and emboldened by the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, took Middle East diplomacy into their own hands.
One such Democrat, Armed Services Committee member Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., ignored State Department objections and visited Syria this week to talk with leaders there about shared interests with the United States in Iraq.
Foreign Relations Committee members (and potential Democratic presidential candidates) Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Chris Dodd of Connecticut are hot on Nelson's heels, travelling to Damascus in the coming days.
Among the Iraq Study Group's 79 recommendations last week was a call for more direct diplomacy with Syria and Iran, something the Bush administration has declined to do.
A Fact Finding Mission
"Our view is that the Syrian government knows full well what it needs to do," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said today. "And certainly the United States is not going to pay the price for mere engagement with Syria in trading on the freedom of the people of Lebanon or looking the other way on the U.N. tribunal investigating the murder of former Prime Minister Hariri.
"Because merely to ask the Syrian government not to do those things which civilized states wouldn't do in the first place...supporting the cause of the use of terror and violence to stop the forward progress of a reconciliation between the Palestinian people and the Israeli people," he said.
In Damascus, Nelson told reporters in a conference call that his trip was a "fact finding mission," that he and Syrian President Bashar Assad "have a common interest in stabilizing Iraq," and called the meeting a "crack in the door."
Nelson has been to Syria two other times, but this was his first trip since 2004.
Back at the Ranch
Back in Washington, other Democrats urged Bush to firmly tell Iraqi politicians now, ahead of Saturday's meeting of politicians in Iraq, that the United States will not be there forever.
Incoming Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., held a joint press conference to point out that unless Bush sends a strong message, "the pressure will be off" Iraqi leadership when they meet on Saturday for the National Reconciliation Conference.
The two senators also argued for a phased redeployment of U.S. troops in Iraq, an idea mirrored by the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton panel.
"There's not a consensus about many issues," Levin said. "But there is a consensus or a near consensus on one key fundamental point: Unless the Iraqi leaders work out a political agreement, ... the violence is going to continue and Iraq is going to continue to descend towards civil war."
The Future of the Troops
Levin argued that the only way to stop that descent is for Bush to put political pressure on Iraqis by making sure they know the U.S. military is leaving, a call mirrored by the Iraq Study Group.
"The president has unwisely told the Iraqis repeatedly that the number and future of our troops is in their hands rather than in our hands. That takes the pressure off the Iraqis," Levin said. "Now, it is that open-ended commitment which has taken the heat and the pressure off the Iraqis to resolve their differences politically."
Levin said he met with Bush last week after the Iraq Study Group gave its recommendations and emphasized to the president the importance of making Iraqis know the U.S. commitment to a military presence there is not "open-ended."
Levin said Bush "looked at me and said 'point well taken.'"
Though incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed frustration with Bush for delaying his much-anticipated speech into the new year, Levin is less concerned.
"I'd rather have the president come to the right decision in January than the wrong decision in December," Levin said.
When asked how they would push legislation without cherry-picking the Baker-Hamilton report, which James Baker warned against, Levin said it was unrealistic to expect people to sign on to all 79 points of something this complicated, but said that most Democrats do agree with the most important point: the pullback of troops.
The Power of the Purse
Levin said he is disinclined to use Congress's power of the purse to demand pullback when the administration asks for more than $100 billion in supplemental spending for the war on terror early next year. Levin said that would send the wrong message to the troops, that he doesn't want "another Vietnam."
The delayed strategy address was the subject of questions for the president as well, following his meeting at the Pentagon with senior Defense Department officials on Iraq.
The president referred to the various ideas and opinions he'd heard on the way forward in Iraq and emphasized that he believes that political, economic and policy tracks need to merge.
"I know there's a lot of debate here at home, and our troops pay attention to that debate. They hear that I am meeting with the Pentagon or the State Department or outside officials, that my National Security team and I are working closely with Iraqi leaders, and they wonder what that means," the president said.
"Well, I'll tell you what it means," Bush said. "It means I am listening to a lot of advice to develop a strategy to help you succeed."