On Christmas Day, Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) arrived in Damascus for meetings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other senior regime officials. He becomes the fourth senator in recent weeks to break an informal travel embargo and visit the Syrian capital, following visits this month by Sens. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), John Kerry (D., Mass.), and Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.).
When Specter announced his intention to visit, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned to ask him not to go, but the senator refused.
"I deferred to them a year ago, and I deferred to them last August," Specter told the Associated Press. "If there were any signs the administration policy [in the Middle East] was working, I'd defer to them again."
But is blind engagement any better? Specter's trip was his 16th taxpayer-funded visit to Syria since 1984. While he may relish the image of statesman, Specter has little but failure to show for his efforts.
On each trip, Syria's state-controlled television broadcast Specter's meeting with the Syrian president. Specter may believe his words are tough, but the Syrian government twists them to imply endorsement. On Jan. 5, 2003, for example, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported that "the U.S. Senator... voiced the United States' appreciation for Syria's positions and efforts aimed at making the Middle East more secure and stable, adding that his country views Syria's positions as principled and rational."
On Dec. 26, 2006, Syrian television reported that Specter "stressed... Syria's pivotal role in the region." Bolstering the sense of importance and confidence of state sponsors of terrorism does not help regional diplomacy.
For all their travels, the senators who visited Damascus would be hard-pressed to name any Arab dissidents whose freedom they won. When Specter met Assad in January 2003, he did not raise the case of Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus correspondent for the London-based al-Hayat daily, whom the Syrian regime had ordered imprisoned just two weeks before for publishing material not cleared by state censors. Today, prominent dissidents such as Aref Dalila, Michel Kilo, Anwar al-Bunni, Mahmoud Issa, and Kamal Labwani remain imprisoned.
While Specter and Assad spoke of the importance of dialogue, blind engagement can endanger U.S. national security. In January 1990, Specter traveled to Baghdad to meet then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. For Hussein, Specter was useful. He believed the Iraqi leader's talk of peace. Over the next few months, Specter resisted proposals by Senate colleague John McCain (R., Ariz.) for sanctions on the Iraqi leader and instead called for dialogue. Hussein used the delay to rebuild his military and, on Aug. 2, 1990, ordered his tanks into Kuwait.
Specter's engagement with Iran was as poorly conceived. On Capitol Hill, he has been a leading voice for rapprochement with the Islamic republic. On Aug. 30, 2000, he accepted Iranian president Mohammad Khatami's call for a dialogue of civilizations and met with the speaker of the Iranian parliament at a New York reception. How sincere was the dialogue? While Specter and his colleagues helped legitimize Iran's image, interaction with the Islamic republic lost its taint. As European trade with Iran tripled, Khatami pumped 70 percent of the hard currency windfall into Iran's nuclear and military programs. Nor did Specter's dialogue stop the terror threat. The 9/11 Commission report shows that during this period, the Iranian government was granting free passage to and from terrorist training camps for the 9/11 hijackers.
Specter and his colleagues' latest engagement will hurt U.S. national interests as much. Syria remains a state sponsor of terrorism. Despite Specter's 16 trips, not only is Assad widely reported to be continuing to finance and offer safe haven for terrorists responsible for the deaths of Americans, but also he now reportedly facilitates their passage into Iraq. By legitimizing Assad, the freelancing senators undercut pressure from the United Nations for the Syrian ruler to accept responsibility for the Syrian role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. By conditioning Assad to expect reward for noncompliance, such engagement not only undercuts prospects for peace, but also may actually increase the likelihood of further bloodshed.
Statesmanship should involve more than accruing passport stamps and photo-ops with foreign leaders. Senators should not be dupes for dictators. Not every regime is sincere when it extends an olive branch. Diplomacy is not only about talk, but also about judgment and strategy. If Specter's strategy were so wise, his track record of engagement might not be so dismal.