If, as Karl Marx’s adage holds, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, what happens when the repetition repeats itself?
Well, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s foray into shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Damascus seems firmly stuck on farce, much in line with a certain former House speaker’s foray into China policy at a comparable point in his tenure.
What happened then: Newt Gingrich, newly installed as speaker following the Republican takeover of Congress, brought into the job the tendency of congressional Republicans to take a hard line against Beijing and to support Taiwan with little reservation. China, meanwhile, was hopping mad over Taiwan’s “splittism,” any activity that gave an indication of movement toward independence. One such incident was the desire of Taiwan’s democratically elected president, Lee Teng-hui, to visit the United States to attend a reunion at his alma mater, Cornell University. The Clinton administration, under pressure from the Republican congressional majority, granted Mr. Lee a visa against the wishes of Beijing (and against much internal opposition from China’s sympathizers within the administration).
The Beijing government didn’t like the idea of the so-called president of the renegade Chinese province of Taiwan making even an unofficial visit to the United States, and began stepping up military activity around the Taiwan Strait, complete with missile tests in the general direction of Taiwanese territory. Was China contemplating a military move, forceful reunification of Taiwan with the mainland? Or perhaps seeking to intimidate Taiwanese voters from supporting the independence-minded candidate in upcoming elections? Or perhaps just probing to see how attached the United States really was to Taiwan? Things wouldn’t really cool down for almost a year, until the Clinton administration dispatched two carrier battle groups to the region, which made it clear to Beijing that a military move on Taiwan would mean war with the United States. But in the meantime, on a Sunday talk show, Mr. Gingrich bespoke himself of the no-doubt heartfelt opinion that Taiwan should be recognized as an independent nation.
I’ve got to admit I liked it at the time, just from the point of view of in-your-face to the Chinese communists. But you could say, with some fairness, that all heck broke loose in the aftermath of the comment. U.S. diplomats rushed all over the world to reassure the Chinese and everyone else that, notwithstanding the comments of the speaker, U.S. policy had not changed, pointing out that in the American system, even a figure so powerful as the House speaker doesn’t actually speak for the government. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the architect of the opening to China, took it upon himself to phone Mr. Gingrich and patiently explain the facts of life, after which a chastened speaker recanted his position in an about-face that was not exactly lovely to behold.
Fast forward a dozen years, and you have Mrs. Pelosi’s trip to Damascus. There’s nothing wrong with a congressional delegation setting forth for a little fact-finding, of course, even if the effect is sure to raise the blood pressure of the administration in office, one way or another. Typically, of course, such delegations make a point of trying to represent during their travels the actual views of the U.S. government as articulated by the president and the State Department. But there have always been flamboyant exceptions, such as Rep. Jim McDermott’s visit to Baghdad prior to the war.
But it’s one thing to spout off as a mere member of Congress and another thing to, in effect, assign yourself the role of negotiator on behalf of the U.S. government. That, in effect, is what Mrs. Pelosi did, and she looks quite the fool for having done so. In Jerusalem, she discerned a new willingness to talk with Syria, when what she really encountered was the settled position of the Israeli government. In Damascus, she discerned a new willingness to make peace with Israel, when what she really encountered were the familiar misrepresentations of a loathsome dictatorship.
As she was trumpeting this supposed peacemaking breakthrough between the Jewish state and its Arab antagonist, she actually invoked, in fine Christian spirit, the “road to Damascus.” This time around, it fell to The Washington Post’s editorial page to take her to the woodshed, describing her misadventures as “counterproductive,” “ludicrous” and “foolish.” I somehow doubt that’s the language Mr. Kissinger used on Mr. Gingrich, but I’m pretty sure it likewise captured Mr. Kissinger’s sense of amateur hour on Capitol Hill.
Here’s the odd fact underlying both episodes: Each of these House speakers had generated foreign policy positions not on the merits but for partisan political purposes: to press an attack not for the purpose of changing policy but to make political hay. And when the positions in question emerged from their partisan contexts for a test drive in the real world, they blew up spectacularly in each leader’s face.
Proven mastery of domestic politics does not automatically convey mastery of statesmanship, a lesson House speakers sometimes get to learn the hard way.