The Risks and Rewards of Freelance Diplomacy

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When New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson went to Sudan to broker a peace deal, he went as a private citizen, and with the blessing of the State Department. This week, President Bush blasted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria. Former presidential envoy George Mitchell discusses freelance diplomacy.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi led a congressional delegation to the Middle East this week for meetings with the heads of government in Israel, Syria and Saudi Arabia. President Bush has harshly criticized the speaker's meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Yesterday in Damascus, Speaker Pelosi said her discussions had gone well with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and with President Assad.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): We were very pleased with the reassurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process, he was ready to engage in negotiations with peace with Israel. The meeting with the president enabled us to communicate a message from Prime Minister Olmert that Israel was ready to engage in peace talks, as well.

CONAN: Shortly afterward, Prime Minister Olmert's office issued a clarification and said that Speaker Pelosi had mischaracterized his message, and there appears to be little new in President Assad's statement. Speaker Pelosi said her goal was to re-open dialogue with Syria in line with the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. Her critics charge that she's running an alternative foreign policy, which is the responsibility of the president and the secretary of state.

Later in the program, Ask Amy. As high-school seniors around the country hear from colleges, Amy Dickinson joins us to discuss how to deal with disappointment. If you have questions about that, you can e-mail us now: But first the risks and rewards of private diplomacy.

What works? Can private citizens or members of Congress cross the line? Can they be useful? Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is You can also comment on our blog. It's at

With us from his office here in Washington, D.C., is Hisham Melhem. He's the bureau chief of Al Arabiya, a 24-hour Arabic TV news channel. He also writes for An-Nahar, a daily newspaper in Lebanon. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. HISHAM MELHEM (Bureau Chief, Al-Arabia): Thank you.

CONAN: What's been the reaction in the region to Speaker Pelosi's trip to Damascus?

Mr. MELHAM: Well, to begin with, in Syria, there was a sense of jubilation and vindication and even a sense of triumphalism, if you will, because they felt that Nancy Pelosi is breaking the policy of isolation that the Bush administration has tried to impose on Syria for some time now. And so they saw that as the beginning of the end of that kind of an approach by the Bush administration.

In other parts of the region, in Lebanon for instance, there is a great deal of trepidation, if you will, on the part of many, many Lebanese. Because they did not want Nancy Pelosi to appear as if she is rewarding the Syrian strongman by giving him that kind of legitimacy, if you will. And in fact that's what they told her when some of the Lebanese leaders met with her before she went to Damascus, and they asked her to stress the need for Syria to cooperate with the United Nations in the investigation of the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Throughout the region there was an interest in the visit, obviously. We covered it at Al Arabiya. We covered it in my paper, obviously. But there was very little illusion about her success in reviving peace talks between the Arabs and Israelis, particularly between Syria and Israel. And those leaders there, including the leaders of those countries that are not necessarily open or democratic, are astute enough to realize the limitations of the speaker of the House and the divisions in terms of, you know, between the executive branch and the legislative branch in terms of running foreign policy. So they received her obviously with open arms, but they have no illusions about her ability to conduct foreign policy.

CONAN: I was going to mention, clearly there have been other congressional delegations that have visited Syria, and certainly many, many, of course have gone to Israel and to Lebanon, as well.

Mr. MELHEM: True.

CONAN: And yet is the speaker of the House of Representatives seen as something special?

Mr. MELHEM: Absolutely, because she is at least trying to mediate or at least to be appearing as if she's trying to revive the Syrian-Israel track, so to speak. And this is something that Arlen Specter, for instance, being a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, did not try to do, at least formally; or Frank Wolf, the Republican congressman from Virginia, and others who visited Damascus and other capitals in the region recently.

So maybe that's one of the reasons - and of course, she's the third in line in Washington in terms of being a very senior official visiting Damascus after the White House urged her not to go.

I mean, the White House was not necessarily very enthusiastic about the other delegations going there, but in her case, I know from sources at the White House that they urged her not to go. And when they failed in changing her opinion, they briefed her on the latest material, and in fact they suggested -I know that for a fact - that she will make a point while she is in Damascus to meet with representatives of civil society in Syria and with those activists in human rights efforts in Syria, and that's what she did.

And they asked her, you know, to stress the issue of the international tribunal investigating the murder of Hariri and urging Syria not to collaborate with those forces that are not working for peace.

So even the speaker herself had to do that, because I'm sure she realizes that if she will not say these things in Damascus, she will be severely criticized here. And already you've seen the editorial today, the main editorial in the Washington Post, which was really a tough one.

CONAN: Highly critical of Speaker Pelosi, called her, I believe, foolish.

Mr. MELHEM: Well, (unintelligible) in Damascus and foolish. And yeah, you're right.

CONAN: Hisham Melhem, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MELHEM: Thank you.

CONAN: Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya and writer for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. He joined us by phone from his office here in Washington, D.C.

Joining us now is former Senator George Mitchell, in fact, former Majority Leader George Mitchell. He helped broker the Good Friday Peace Agreement between Britain and Northern Ireland in 1998, and chaired an international fact-finding committee on violence in the Middle East at the request of President Bill Clinton. Senator Mitchell joins us now on the line from Key Biscayne in Florida. And Senator, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. GEORGE MITCHELL (Former Senate Majority Leader): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: I wonder, you've been on a lot of fact-finding missions to many places overseas, in addition of course to your roles as a presidential envoy, but as a senator, there is a distinct difference, is there not, between fact-finding and diplomacy?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well of course there is, yes.

CONAN: And can you say what that line is?

Mr. MITCHELL: I don't think anyone can say exactly where the line is because it depends upon the circumstances that exist in the country being visited, domestically in our own country. Obviously, there's that overlap in virtually every congressional delegation.

CONAN: And obviously members of Congress have to be cognizant of it, but at the same time they can't be afraid of staking out a position.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, of course, that's right. If someone said you can't do anything that even sounds like diplomacy, why then you'd become simply a spectator or a tourist going there visiting, unable to engage in any serious conversation with someone from another country.

So I think there clearly are cases where someone could go over the line, but it's very difficult to tell because there is no universally accepted distinction or line between the two.

CONAN: Is it common - also we heard Hisham Melhem tell us that, according to his reports, the speaker was briefed by members of the executive branch about the latest information on Syria - and is that common that members of congressional delegations, when overseas on fact-finding missions, are briefed ahead of time on certain issues?

Mr. MITCHELL: It is quite common. As majority leader, I traveled to many countries and I regularly received briefings. I heard what he said, in effect the administration taking credit for the speaker meeting with other groups there. I've not talked to her, but my guess is that she probably had planned to meet with all of those groups anyway. That certainly was a commonplace part of visits that I made. So this is purely speculation on my part, but my guess is that she had planned all of these meetings, did receive a briefing and probably was helpful.

CONAN: I wonder, did you ever feel when you were on a fact-finding mission as a member of Congress somewhere that you had to pull back because you might be stepping over a line?

Mr. MITCHELL: No, I don't think so. People in governments around the world understand that in the United States there are three separate branches of government, that the Congress is independently elected, that they don't speak for nor are they the president or the executive branch, and that they have a separate constitutional, legal and political basis for participating in these discussions.

So I think all of the fuss about Speaker Pelosi's visit is really kind of politics in reverse. The president accuses her of participating in politics. I think that's kind of like the guy who begins a conversation by saying it's not the money, it's the principle. Well, you know well it's the money. And in this case I think it's just a kind of a political fuss that doesn't have much substance to it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation. We're talking about the role of members of Congress. And later we'll be also talking about the role of private citizens in diplomacy and of course international relations. Our number if you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: With us, of course, former Senator George Mitchell. Clayton(ph) is on the line. Clayton with us from Portland, Oregon.

CLAYTON (Caller): Hi. Senator Mitchell just kind of made my point for me. But I just wanted to say that Nancy Pelosi is head of the separate and equal branch of government than the executive branch, and it was kind of disheartening to hear someone from overseas talking about it like it wasn't important that she came and that it was somehow belittled because she was not in line with the executive branch.

CONAN: Well I think what Hisham Melhem was saying was that it was less important, that people overseas understand that the speaker of the House is not in charge of U.S. foreign policy.

CLAYTON: Right, but I think it's important that people should realize that throughout American history congressmen and senators have been involved in foreign policy and have been diplomats and have been, like, very influential and making great strides in foreign policy.

CONAN: And of course he's right there, Senator Mitchell. But does it become more acute when there's differences, opposite parties, that sort of thing?

Mr. MITCHELL: Probably more acute, but there's always a tension between the legislative and executive branches, regardless of party. I can recall serving under Democratic presidents and Republican presidents while I was in the Congress, and there is a built-in tension I think deliberately created by the framers to ensure that the principal of the disbursal of power was carried through. So the last five years, when you had a Republican Congress that marched in almost total lockstep with the president, didn't question anything, there was no real oversight, in my judgment was an aberration in American political history. I don't think that's been the norm. I think Congresses have more often challenged presidents of whatever party, and I think that's a healthy thing. I think the previous five years was an aberration and probably not a good thing for the country.

CONAN: Senator Mitchell, stay with us if you would. We're going to take a short break and when we come back we'll take more calls. 800-989-8255. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This it TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking today about diplomacy by non-diplomats. Yesterday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was in Damascus, Syria, on a visit that was roundly criticized by the White House. Our guest is former Senator George Mitchell. He chaired the peace negotiations between Britain and Northern Island and was also Middle East envoy in the Clinton administration.

Of course you're welcome to join our conversation: 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Tracey(ph). Tracey's with us from Clarksville, Tennessee.

TRACEY (Caller): Hey Neal, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

TRACEY: I just had a comment that, you know, former Senator Mitchell says that it was kind of playing politics, but I kind of disagree because I can see this as a very detrimental visit based on a policy we're trying to establish in Syria; and not to mention the fact that Ms. Pelosi went over and offered almost a deal to Syria based on Israel's participation, which turned out to be completely fraudulent. So I think there's a little more involved here than politics, and I would say the same thing if this were the Clinton administration and a Republican senator going over and making the same faux pas.

CONAN: Fraudulent may be going a little too far. They said they mischaracterized the position. But Senator Mitchell, there did seem to be a misstep there.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well we won't know, of course, until we hear from those who were actually in the meeting…

CONAN: True enough.

Mr. MITCHELL: …what occurred and what led to it. So I think it's best to reserve judgment on that. In fact, Republican senators have just gone over and met with Assad.

TRACEY: That was under completely different circumstances, though. There was no deal broached of, you know, premise for peace between Israel and Syria. And it seems like an official negotiation, which is sending the completely wrong message to this rogue administration in Syria.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I respectfully disagree. First, I think it's clear there was no deal offered. She's trying to encourage in negotiation to bring about peace in the Middle East, and it clearly will at some point involve a negotiation between Israel and Syria. And in the past, United Sates policy under presidents Republican and Democratic have been to encourage such negotiations and discussions. President Bush - the first President Bush met with President Assad's father.

Secretary of State Baker made many, many visits there. And of course it was Secretary of State Baker, who, as chairman of the Iraq Study Group most recently and I think most persuasively, made the argument that this policy of not speaking to people with whom we disagree is counterproductive to American interests. And really, we have to look at the results of that policy in the Middle East now.

You have a complete mess in Iraq, really an extremely difficult situation. American influence in the region is the lowest it's been really throughout modern history. Our ability to create coalitions to combat with the aggressiveness of Iran, particularly their nuclear ambitions, is making it very difficult to rally people around us. My own view is that you ought not to have a blanket policy that you're never going to talk to people with whom you disagree or that you're always going to talk to them.

You ought to do it on a case by case basis. And in this case, I think clearly, as former Secretary of State Baker said, discussions with Syria are warranted.

CONAN: And we just - news earlier today - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she could foresee the possibility of a bilateral meeting with Iran in the context of the next regional meeting. So maybe that ice is breaking a bit, as well. One final question, Senator Mitchell, you were also a presidential envoy, particularly in various places, and helped broker the talks between - serving as good offices between Britain and Northern Island. And that situation, that's a difference circumstance, isn't it?

Mr. MITCHELL: It was a different circumstance. First, in Northern Island, I acted at the request of the British and Irish governments. Now it's clear that my position being there at the request of President Clinton played a role in it, but my chairmanship was based upon the invitation of the other two governments. In the Middle East, I was there at the request of several governments. So that really is a different situation.

But I have to tell you, in Northern Ireland, we were regularly visited by congressional delegations. We had dozens of Republicans and Democratic members of the Senate and the House who came over there, got involved, participated, expressed their views, some of which they disagreed among themselves; some which I agreed with, some of which I didn't. But everybody accepted that as part of the American political process. So the notion that a congressman, Democratic or Republican, going around the world talking to others is somehow some big deal I think is plainly contradicted by history.

CONAN: And certainly more than a few members of Congress had plenty to say after visits to the Middle East I'm sure, as well.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, very common. Very common.

CONAN: Senator Mitchell, thanks so much for your time today. We appreciate it. Former Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the peace negotiations between in Northern Island and was a Middle East envoy during the Clinton administration. Now we're going to switch the focus a little bit to talk about private citizens and their roles in diplomacy.

Going from schoolteacher to diplomat to winner of the Nobel Peace Prize may seem like a stretch. In 1997 Jody Williams was a joint recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize with the international campaign to ban land mines. Williams is still an ambassador to that campaign. She's also a founder with five other female Nobel laureates of the Nobel Women's Initiative, an organization dedicated to peace, justice and equality. Jody Williams joins us now from her home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. JODY WILLIAMS (Cofounder, Nobel Women's Initiative): I'm happy to be here, even if it's from my home. How are you?

CONAN: I'm very well. Thank you. How did you - when you're a private citizen, it must be a daunting idea that you would become essentially a diplomat and be negotiating with all these governments.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I didn't actually think about it that way. I just saw the landmine issue as a global problem and that nobody was really doing much to make the world understand a long-term impact of the weapon, and so brought groups together to try to deal with the problem. It seemed like a no-brainer. We certainly didn't expect what we got, but we're thrilled by it.

CONAN: Along the way, did you ever encounter resistance from the government? They said wait a minute, you're interfering in a policy that, you know - this is the province of elected representatives and the executive branch.

Ms. WILLIAMS: In a sense we did have that problem in the beginning because we were working with an existing U.N. treaty that tried to deal with landmines just by regulating how you use them. And the negotiations on that - reviewing the treaty, we were lobbying to try to get them to change it to ban landmines. And we were not allowed in the room when the governments met. We had to stand outside the doors hoping they'd come out for cigarette and coffee breaks so we could lobby them.

Once we, you know, get galvanized public opinion - and the Ottawa process was launched by then-Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy of Canada - was completely different. It was open partnership. We helped create the treaty. We helped write the treaty. We were in the negotiations. It was just a dramatic change.

CONAN: And at that point your negotiations are on a completely different level.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Totally. I mean, I think one of the huge problems from my view as a global citizen in what is, you know, normal diplomatic negotiations, governments tell you one thing outside the door; they go inside, close the doors and then cut deals, and you don't know it. I mean, you know from what happens when they come out. You didn't get what they told you you were going to get. But it's very different if you're sitting in the room during the actual negotiations. It's harder for them to play those games.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get…

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Unintelligible).

CONAN: And not get caught, in other words.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Exactly.

CONAN: Now let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Jerry. And Jerry's with us from Wayne, Pennsylvania.

JERRY: Hi, thank you for - I was particularly impressed to see that there was some opening in conversation. And I think any time diplomats, congressional people or anyone, tries to keep the doors of conversation and communication going with people who - in the case of Assad - it's important. I can tell you from my own personal experience: In the late '70s, I started bringing together in the Philadelphia area Israelis and Palestinians for dialogue, to meet one another on a private basis at a time when the concept of dialogue between the two parties was unheard of.

And at that time no one would have dreamed that maybe somewhere along the line there would be an actual diplomatic recognition. And while we still see problems in the area, we are light years ahead of where we were when walls of communication were put up. And I think when we look at the last five or six years where an administration has put up walls to talking or restrictions on talking or conditions on talking, I think we have to applaud anyone who opens up channels or continues to channel because this is how we break through.

This is how there becomes understandings both through private channels, people who can establish relationships, keep the relationships going, as well as on a diplomatic level. And I think it's a shame when there are people who cast Ms. Pelosi's actions to be purely political. I think it's very shortsighted. I think what we're seeing is an opportunity to perhaps find where there are areas of disagreement. Again, as one caller earlier said, I think everyone knows we don't make peace among friends. We make it with enemies. Somewhere we have to be able to overcome that term enemy and find where there is common ground.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I certainly agree. When tensions between Iran and the United States started ratcheting up last year, Shirin Ebadi, who of course won the Nobel Peace Prize from Iran, and I brought women together in Vienna at around that time.

She brought a group of women from Iran, I brought women from the U.S., and we opened dialogue at civil society level. I think we can't leave communication only to government's diplomats, Congress people, that, you know, normal people like ourselves have to meet the other people, discuss what we want and open channels on all levels.

In one month, at the end of May, the Nobel Women's Initiative is going to host our first conference, and it is going to be in Ireland to learn from the process they have undergone to try to bring about peace. But the focus is on the Middle East. And we're bringing with - half of our participants are from Middle East, the other half are from other countries around the world, to dialogue about how we as women can bring about change.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call.

JERRY: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: And another aspect, I guess, that your career demonstrates, Jody Williams, which you were just talking about, having had the enormous success that you've had with the landmine treaty and I guess the celebrity status conferred by the Nobel Peace Prize, gives you an opportunity to a platform from which to address other issues.

Ms. WILLIAMS: It certainly does. And I must confess I had a bit of adjustment in the first few years of receiving the prize because I am - nobody believes it - but I'm an introvert and I prefer to be alone with my books. But, you know, it does change things and it gives you access and it makes life in some ways easier and some ways more difficult.

CONAN: It must - I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. Being suddenly a celebrity, and I guess people ask your position on all kinds of issues sometimes you may not know a lot about.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I have no problem saying I don't know about that. You know, I don't pretend that suddenly everything I say is a pearl of wisdom. You know, I know what I know and I know what I don't know. It's better to be straight with people and then you don't get caught in lies and all sorts of confusion.

CONAN: We're speaking with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams. Won the award in 1997 with the campaign that she was among the leaders of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And just following up on what Jerry was talking about. In a way, every citizen is a diplomat - you know, a small D diplomat, if you will. Because if you go overseas and talk to people, these are the fundamental parts of relationships or meet people who visit this country.

Ms. WILLIAMS: That's true. I really suggest that Americans should get out of this huge continent that we live on and travel around the world and not just stay in the Sheraton and not just eat at American-style restaurants. But really go out and mingle with people in the countries you're visiting and get to know them.

Pretty much people everywhere have the same desires, you know, peace, a chance for a future for their kids, a decent life, a decent house. We're not all that different. And when we really recognize the commonalities, it's harder for governments to twist the facts, if you will, and play their power of politics.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another call…

Ms. WILLIAMS: (unintelligible) demonized the people of the Soviet Union were when it was the Soviet Union. You know, every communist was supposed to be horrible. They were just normal people under a particular government that they happened to get, you know? Now - well, not now, Mr. Putin seems to be rolling back the tide, doesn't he?

CONAN: Yes, Jason's(ph) with us…

Ms. WILLIAMS: Now, it's, you know, people in Russia are normal people. We recognize that. Instead, we're now demonizing, you know, Muslims.

CONAN: Jason is with us. Jason is on the line from Northampton in Massachusetts.

JASON (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

JASON: Good. Jody, nice to hear you. I've been a long time fan of your work. I'm actually…

Ms. WILLIAMS: You know, I'm just up the road of Northampton, you know?

JASON: You are?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I'm from Brattleboro, Vermont.

JASON: Oh, yeah, I went to SIT in '56, from SIT.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, hello, I went there too in '75.

JASON: Oh, fabulous. I did not know that. Well, that's great. Well, I - just a quick point. One just a very quick point about Nancy Pelosi. I just believe that news Pelosi might be just priming the pumps to what folks in the Middle East, leaders in the Middle East might be seeing in the Democratic platform in this next coming election.

But to move on to the actual, you know, private citizen who's acting as diplomats. I think we all have a responsibility as concerned citizens, as Jody said, of the world. And right now I'm in the nascent stages of trying to get students together and get some financial support to a cultural exchange to Iran. And I'm just wondering, I know we don't have diplomatic relations. There's a department of interest, I believe, I think through either…

CONAN: The Swiss. Yes.

JASON: Yeah, yes, through the embassy that I've been talking with. Just briefly, and I'm just wondering, you know, is it a safe time to be doing this? Would I be remiss and irresponsible of leading students over there at a time like this?

Ms. WILLIAMS: No, absolutely not. I think people from the U.S. and people from Iran need to meet each other.

CONAN: And if…

Ms. WILLIAMS: We need to know that, you know, they aren't evil and they need to know that we aren't evil.

CONAN: And you were talking earlier about the Soviet Union. And thanks very much for the call, Jason, and good luck with your project. But the government started a program called People to People, which was later privatized and of course became a broad structure. But those people-to-people relationships proved to be very important throughout the Cold War.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Sure, as the Peace Corps. I mean, I think of the Peace Corps and how many, you know, people have experienced that and come back changed people. You know, it really does have an impact on your whole life if you share in the experience of another person's culture, even if it's for a short period of time.

CONAN: Jody Williams, thanks so much for your help today, and good luck with your project, as well.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

CONAN: Jody Williams, co-founder of the Nobel Women's Initiative, the winner in 1997 of the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. When we come back from a short break, it's time for Ask Amy. It's college decision season and the tyranny of the skinny envelope. If you'd like to join our conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, How do you cope with what for many high school seniors may be the first serious disappointment of their young lives?

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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