Friday, April 6, 2007

Domestic Pots and Kettles

We have Truthdig; Dick Cheney has Rush Limbaugh. Susan Cornwell filed a Reuters story on how the Vice President used an appearance on Rush Limbaugh's radio program to issue the administration's public response to Nancy Pelosi's visit to Syria. As is often the case, the choice of words is the best part of the story:

I think it is, in fact bad behavior on her part. I wish she hadn't done it. Fortunately I think the various parties involved recognize she doesn't speak for the Untied [I assume that this was Ms. Cornwell's typo, rather than Cheney's Freudian slip, although the latter possibility is far more entertaining] States in those circumstances, she doesn't represent the administration.

You would think that, given the number of administrations he has served, that the Vice President would have a better understanding of the concept of separation of powers. Given the current attitudes of both her colleagues in the Congress and her party in general, I would have been surprised if it had ever entered her mind that she might be representing the administration! The fact is that the Congress used its budget to plan and execute a fact-finding mission to the Middle East; and, if the Constitution does not have any explicit language about Congressional fact-finding missions, there is at least a strong body of precedents. Part of the plan was to try to acknowledge that there were more sides to the story than were in the administration's version. In other words this mission was, among other things, a way to deliberately question the credibility of the administration; and, on the basis of both election results and opinion polls, I would say that such questioning speaks for a significant segment of the population of the United States (but perhaps not the Vice President's Untied States)!

This, however, raises a question that you would have thought would have provided a great opportunity for Cheney and Limbaugh. (Doesn't that sound like a great deli offering? I am tempted to run a contest on what should be in it but reluctant to want to judge the entries!) It is all very well and good for the Congress to let its constituency know that it is questioning Executive credibility, but should it be sending that message to other world leaders? Does the Congress have the right to air dirty laundry before the global public? That question is not covered by the Constitution either. Once upon a time we might have been idealistic enough to invoke the normative principles of civil behavior, but any student of the history of American government knows that such an ideal was never more than a myth. (We seem to have enough civility to eschew the kinds of fist fights they have in Taiwan, so perhaps we should just count our blessings!) My own opinion is that, on the global stage, Ms. Pelosi and her colleagues were doing their best to avoid the message of dirty laundry, concentrating instead on the message of separation of powers. In other words Ms. Pelosi was doing exactly what Cheney accused her of doing: She was not speaking for the administration and demonstrating that the Congress had a right to do just that, even when speaking to representatives of other governments.

This brings us to another question of representation in Ms. Cornwell's story:

While in Damascus on Wednesday, Pelosi announced she had told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Israel was prepared to negotiate with Syria. That prompted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office to underline the Jewish state's preconditions for such talks -- including that Syria abandon its "support for terrorist groups."

Cheney, pointing to the Israeli reaction, said it was obvious Olmert had not authorized the message Pelosi delivered.

The good news is that, when Cheney shot this one from his hip, Ms. Pelosi was ready with a response:

Pelosi's spokesman, Brendan Daly, asked to respond to Cheney's criticism, said the speaker accurately relayed the message from Olmert to Assad.

"The tough and serious message the speaker relayed was that, in order for Israel to engage in talks with Syria, the Syrian government must eliminate its links with extremist elements, including Hamas and Hezbollah," Daly said, referring to the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, and Lebanon's Hezbollah, which Israel fought in a war last year.

The final question is whether or not the interests of the American public have been served. My guess is that the delegation returned from their trip better informed, just because they took the initiative of bringing more voices into the conversation. The Middle East is still an extremely delicate situation, so it is hard to assess whether or not their effort to further conversation among Middle Eastern parties will have a positive result. However, my own feeling is that they did not do any damage to anything other than Ms. Pelosi's standing with AIPAC (which is clearly not her highest priority)!

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