Pelosi Defends 'Message' of Middle East Trip

Nancy Pelosi talks to journalists in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. i

Nancy Pelosi talks to journalists in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during her recent Middle East trip. Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images
Nancy Pelosi talks to journalists in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Nancy Pelosi talks to journalists in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during her recent Middle East trip.

Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has completed a Middle East trip that included a meeting on Wednesday with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and a trip Thursday to Saudi Arabia, where she met with its unelected advisory council. Pelosi spoke Friday with Robert Siegel from Portugal, during a stopover on her way back to the United States.

You have been criticized not just by President Bush and Vice President Cheney for this trip, but even The Washington Post editorial page devotes an editorial, called "Pratfall in Damascus," about your visit and talks with President Assad. Was this trip worth it?

The trip was, very much. The facts of the trip are what we are bringing back now. It's a fact-finding trip. The purpose of our trip was to assess, for advancing our own national security and fighting the war on terror, what the situation was on the ground in the Middle East. It was our purpose to come here, to have a clear message to all of the countries that we're interested in peace in the Middle East, with Israel; to go to Damascus and say to President Assad the same message that President Bush has for him. While we may disagree on whether we should have a trip to Damascus, there's no division in our views and the case that we made to him.

Can you just sort out for us, though, the confusion over the message that you carried from Israeli Prime Minister Olmert?

There was no confusion. There was absolutely no confusion. The message that we carried from Prime Minister Olmert was the exact message that he gave us. He is a man of peace, and he expressed to us that we should express to the president of Syria his interest in going to the negotiating table, but not until Syria took steps to stop its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. And that is exactly the message that we conveyed.

But the prime minister of Israel's office issued a clarification, a denial, in effect, because according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz the other day, the statement from the prime minister's office, from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office, said that Olmert had told Pelosi that Israel continued to regard Syria, quote, "as part of the axis of evil and a party encouraging terrorism in the entire Middle East." If I heard you, you didn't — you don't recall him saying that in you conversation.

No. What he told us was that the thrust of his statement is that Israel is prepared to go to the negotiating table; we are not preparing for war — that was the important part of it — we are not preparing for war; we're prepared to go to negotiation when Syria takes steps to stop its support of Hamas and Hezbollah.

And you say that's what you told Syrian President Assad?

Well, not only just I; Tom Lantos, Henry Waxman (Pelosi's fellow Democratic representative from California), two strong supporters of Israel who — we had made a very direct message to the president on that score.

Actually, Prime Minister Olmert — his office is the one who put out the idea that we would be taking a message in the first place, because we had a meeting with the prime minister. We didn't go to the press and say what we did there, but they also put out the message that they had asked us to take this message to the Syrians. And whatever press they heard about the visit may not have been satisfactory to them, so they may want to clarify it for that purpose. But there was no clarification needed ...

Can you tell us, in Saudi Arabia, what did you hear from the Saudis about the House Democrats' preference and your preference for the U.S. to start withdrawing from Iraq next year?

Well, we — in our meeting in Saudi Arabia, it really more related to the purpose of our trip ... What we went to the Middle East was to convey a message of ... where we are in agreement with the president. So our differences are what we debated in the States. What we stand together on is ... the message that we took.

But just to clarify, when you met with the Saudi monarch, you didn't talk about withdrawal from Iraq with him?

In our general debate there, we met with him for three hours. Certainly the issue of troops going in and out of Syria into Iraq is part of the concern we have with Syria, and we expressed that to him. In his response, he had some opinions about Iraq, but again, it was related to the subjects that we went there to talk to him about.

We talked about Somalia, we talked about Darfur and we had spent most of our time talking about the Saudi Initiative for Middle East Peace and how it is being received in the Arab world and what prospect it was with the Israelis, who obviously are the other most important part.

The transcript includes minor edits for clarity.

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