WASHINGTON, Dec. 15, 2006 -- In the next week there will be senators in Syria and House members in Cuba, countries where the United States has no official ambassador and with which, for political reasons, the Bush administration refuses to speak.
While technically fact-finding missions, the congressional trips come amidst criticism that the Bush administration is not doing enough to diplomatically engage countries whose relations with the United States are strained.
In the case of Syria, the cold shoulder from the White House comes despite the strong recommendations of Democrats and the Iraq Study Group that a direct dialogue with Damascus could be essential to stabilizing Iraq.
It's not just Democrats flouting the Republican White House, which has official control of American foreign policy. The eight-member delegation to Cuba is made up of four Republicans and four Democrats. That group may meet with acting President Raul Castro before returning Sunday.
Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, is one of the four senators who either were just in or are going to Syria in the coming weeks. Specter delivered a speech on the Senate floor last week advocating dialogue between the United States and Syria, as well as with North Korea.
"We really, as has been pointed out, need to keep our friends close and our enemies closer," Specter said. "I think that diplomacy and dialogue has an excellent opportunity to lead to solutions. … It is my hope that the president will move in the direction cited by the Baker-Hamilton commission [the Iraq Study Group] and will go even further and engage in direct negotiations with Iran, Syria and North Korea. … In Cuba, the dynamic is different, but the effect may be the same."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized the senators traveling to Syria, telling a Washington Post editorial board on Thursday that the "compensation" Syria or Iran would demand in exchange for helping the United States stabilize Iraq would be too great to justify negotiating with those two regimes.
"We have discouraged members of Congress from doing this," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday.
"We spoke with [Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida who went on a fact-finding mission to Syria this week] beforehand. He went. We think it's inappropriate. … The point is that even lending a further specter of legitimacy to that government undermines the cause of democracy in the region."
Despite the administration's objections, the senators are taking the Iraq Study Group's recommendations to heart, sidestepping the State Department, and traveling on their own to Syria.
Earlier this week, Nelson was in Damascus on a "fact-finding mission."
But he discussed with President Bashar al-Assad the common interests of the United States and Syria in Iraq.
Today, Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd and John Kerry -- both on the Foreign Relations Committee, both potential presidential candidates -- head to the Middle East and plan to travel to Syria together.
In a conference call with journalists after his meeting with Assad, Nelson said that before he left, the State Department had privately discouraged him from making the trip.
A State Department spokesman refused to do so in public, but did say that "individual senators, congressmen, will make their own decisions about where and when they travel, and with whom they meet. We, as the State Department, should they decide to travel, try to offer services and assistance as requested. Just because we offer those services and offer that assistance doesn't mean we think it's a good idea."
On Thursday, under fire from the White House for "diluting" the hard-line, no-discourse approach, Dodd released a statement defending his trip.
"Congress is a separate and co-equal branch of government, and as a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, where oversight is a critical component, members need to go to hot spots not just garden spots," he said in the statement.
"I can't think of a more critical part of the world than the Middle East, and I can't think of a more critical player in affecting events in the region for good or for bad than Syria. That is why I have decided to include a stop in Syria during my seven-day fact finding trip to the region," he said.
All this political jockeying in the foreign arena is new; lawmakers traveling to countries where the United States has strained relations is not.
California Democrat Rep. Tom Lantos, who will chair the House Foreign Relations Committee beginning in January, has traveled to North Korea twice in the last two years, and he hopes to go again.
And despite Lantos' differences with the Bush administration's foreign policy, his communications director, Lynne Weil, said that both trips had been with the full blessing and logistical help of the State Department.
Lantos received briefings from undersecretaries of state.
"Congressman Lantos does not want to stray from the stated goal of the administration," Weil said. "Track two diplomacy is one way of putting it. Another is that they are building bridges with colleagues in parliaments overseas and with high-level officials overseas."
Weil said lawmakers would not intentionally undercut the administration's legal prerogative to engage in diplomacy for the country.
The Bush administration has been less openly critical of a congressional trip to Cuba.
"The situation is a little bit different going down to Havana than going down to Syria," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said today. "Especially where you have the issue of Syria really on the front pages, and we've made quite clear our position that now is not the moment to engage Syria."
While Iraq Study Group co-chair James Baker could point to successful diplomatic entreaties he made to Syria leading up to the first Gulf War as proof that a diplomatic offensive could work, the United States has had no political ties to Cuba in almost a generation.
The delegation traveling to Cuba, however, appears to advocate a direct dialogue between the White House and Havana.
Members of the delegation to Cuba plan to introduce legislation in loosen restrictions on some travel to the communist state, a law that would be opposed by the Bush administration.
"We feel it is timely to make an effort to determine whether there is the political will on the part of the Cubans to initiate a real dialogue," Democratic Rep. William Delahunt of Massachusetts told reporters in his district.
The Bush administration's stance toward Cuba is focused on a post-Castro transition to democracy.
With the Cuban dictator's health failing, the United States is taking steps to prepare for the day when he is not in power.
As outlined in a transition plan report released earlier this year, Washington is supporting pro-democracy groups that it hopes will take over once Fidel Castro dies.
Thomas Shannon, the State Department's top official for the Western Hemisphere, told reporters earlier this week, however, that the communist regime had shown signs of hardening as Castro neared death.
A State Department spokesman said today that the congressional delegation to Cuba could help pave the way for such a transition.
"We certainly hope that they would take the opportunity while they're down there to underscore the fact that it's important that the transition that is under way in Cuba right now -- we all know that there is a transition under way in Cuba -- that it not be a transition from one dictator to another dictator, and that the Cuban people have an opportunity to realize the same sort of democratic freedoms that every other country in the hemisphere is able to enjoy," McCormack said.
The repercussions for intentionally countering administration policy can cause problems for members of Congress.
Republican Curt Weldon, who lost his Pennsylvania seat in November, for instance, presented the North Korean government with a 10-point plan for peace that he had scrawled on the back of a napkin in his hotel room while in North Korea in May 2003.
When Weldon tried to return to North Korea that October to visit a North Korea nuclear site, against the wishes of the White House, his trip was blocked, according to media reports at the time.