A few weeks ago, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took a bipartisan congressional delegation to the Middle East, including Israel. But the aspect of her trip that got the most attention was a visit to Damascus, which included a photo-op and talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The reaction from the White House and many conservative pundits was immediate and harsh. Vice President Dick Cheney accused the speaker of "bad behavior." Others labeled the trip as an attempt to undermine a policy whose aim has been to isolate and pressure the a brutal dictator into stopping the flow of terrorists into Iraq, as well as to cease its efforts to reassert control of Lebanon.
The White House appeared to reach out to Jerusalem, and have the Olmert government contradict Pelosi's statement in Damascus that she brought a peace message from the Israelis. That was an embarrassment to Pelosi, but also to the Israelis for allowing themselves to be a pawn in an American chess game.
Now that the dust has settled on that incident this might be an apt moment for the Republicans to apologize to Pelosi.
That's not just because such congressional hubris is hardly unprecedented. To take just one example, anyone who never condemned Sen. Arlen Specter's (R-Pa.) indefatigable schmoozing with Assad junior's loathsome father had no right to torch the new Speaker of the House.
While the speaker's trip cannot be defended on its own merits against Cheney's attacks, neither can the Bush own administration's hypocrisy.
That's especially true after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's journey to Sharm El-Sheik last week for a pow-wow with none other than the foreign minister of Syria, Walid al-Moallem, during the course of a two-day summit in the Sinai with Mideast nations, including two of the charter members of the axis of evil: Iran and Syria.
The meeting served primarily to give the Iranians an international platform to blast the United States, and to mock attempts to force it to give up both its support for terror in Iraq and its nuclear program.
In particular, Rice's tete-à-tete with the Assad family current consigliere was quite a triumph for the Syrians, in that it marked the public repudiation of an American dictum that prohibited high-level talks with that nation since Assad's minions assassinated Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
In one fell swoop, Rice gave both Tehran and Damascus sweet vindication for their belief that if they waited long enough, they could spit in America's eye and have the State Department call it rain.
And what did the secretary receive in payment for this diplomatic coup?
Are the Syrians halting their support for Hamas and Hezbollah or terrorists in Iraq? Uh uh.
Is Iran closer to abandoning the nukes with which it seeks to obliterate Israel? Nope.
Instead, the Americans seem to be signaling to Lebanon that efforts to maintain its independence or obtain justice for Hariri's murder are in peril.
Defenders of the new policy argue talk is always better than war, and that the only way we will ever get these countries to change their ways is to engage them in dialogue. After all, they say, throughout the Cold War, the United States never ceased talking to the Soviet Union.
Even though it can be argued that the détente policies of the 1970s by the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations probably helped prolong the life span of Communist tyranny as much as it kept the peace, they have a point. Lines of communication between countries are important.
The problem is that the focus of the diplomatic paradigm that is at the core of the campaign to engage Iran and Syria, as well as parallels efforts to end the diplomatic and financial embargo on the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority, is not communication. It is about appeasement.
At a time when many worry that both Syria and Hamas (which is turning Gaza into a fortress as Hezbollah did in Lebanon) are considering another military confrontation with Israel, the temptation for American diplomats to dive headfirst into dialogue with these bad actors is growing.
What would be the result if we return to the so-called realpolitik preached by the Iraq Study Group, which championed engagement of Iran and Syria?
While those who embrace engagement say their goal is an end to Iranian and Syrian support for terror, as well as to halt Tehran's nuclear ambitions, the dynamic of the talks inevitably leads to Western concessions in exchange for little or nothing.
The problem here isn't the idea of the two sides talking. It's the nature of a negotiation in which terrorists and their sponsors are treated as being equally valid as that of a democratic ally.
As the failed Oslo process proved, the fallacy was the idea that all proof of Palestinian bad faith and broken promise was somehow less important than the ultimate goal of peace that was flawed.
Such lies didn't engender trust; rather, it bred a process that gradually convinced the Palestinians that they could always get away with murder.
Far from bringing moderates to the fore, engagement tends to empower radicals, whose faults are downplayed because of the need to continue the talking.
Will those Syrians who want their country to change be helped by giving a new American seal of approval to the Assad regime? Will it help the Lebanese rid themselves of Hezbollah? Will Iranians who long for a respite from the rule of the mullahs be strengthened by measures that give the mullahs what they want?
And if — rather than make these countries understand that there are red lines that they may not cross with impunity — it breeds in them a spirit of invincibility, what then?
It was this same notion that led Yasser Arafat to believe that he would never be held accountable for his actions that caused him to turn down generous peace offers and launch a terror war of attrition in 2000. It wasn't diplomatic isolation that tempted him to blow up the process; it was seven years of engagement by believers in peaceful dialogue that wound up costing the lives of thousands.
Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran all long for more engagement and an end to American efforts to place them in quarantine. Is this administration so beleaguered and its opposition so bereft of vision that we will give them what they want?
Rather than taking pot shots at the president or Pelosi — as most pundits prefer to do — Americans need to stop and think about whether they want to head down the same path of folly that others have tread before.