WASHINGTON—Sen. Bill Nelson, whom the White House criticized for meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, delivered a critique of his own Tuesday, saying the Bush administration resembles an "ostrich" when it comes to foreign diplomacy.
The Florida Democrat, who traveled to Iraq and eight other countries in the region in December, told the Council on Foreign Relations that he's convinced that President Bush's plan to send in more than 20,000 additional troops isn't enough to end the sectarian violence in Iraq. He called instead for an "aggressive diplomatic effort" with "all of Iraq's neighbors," including Syria and Iran.
"In short, the costs of failure in Iraq will be catastrophic—in growing threats to us and our allies, and in more American and Iraqi lives lost—if we do not awaken to the fact that an aggressive diplomatic effort, not military might, is what is needed to end the sectarian violence in Iraq," Nelson said.
His remarks came as the Senate prepares to counter Bush's proposal with a nonbinding resolution that says sending more troops into Baghdad and Anbar province is "not in the national interest."
Nelson voted for the war in Iraq, but he became increasingly critical of it as popular opinion turned against the war. Nelson, a centrist Democrat, voted last week in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the resolution opposing the troop surge, but said Tuesday that the vote to go to war wasn't a mistake.
"The word is misrepresentation," Nelson said. "Over and over again we weren't told the truth. About weapons of mass destruction, about troop levels, about the cost of the war or about the sectarian violence."
Nelson said he believes that only a massive infusion of troops will quell the fighting.
"If we had 200,000 or 300,000 more soldiers in Iraq, maybe," he said. "It might make a difference in temporarily restoring order. But the global mandates on our military make that impossible."
Instead, he said, the United States must work with Iraq and its neighbors to find a political settlement between Iraq's warring factions.
He said the Iraqis must also take responsibility for their security and that the United States should appoint an "Iraqi reconstruction czar" to lead a "massive and effective international reconstruction program."
Nelson expressed little confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saying he "either lacks the will, or he lacks the nerve, or he lacks the ability" to take on the Shiite militias.
"His rushed execution of Saddam Hussein—certainly justified but horribly carried out—spoke volumes about his insensitivity to the concerns of Sunnis," Nelson said.
The White House has expressed reluctance about diplomatic outreach to Syria because of the country's support for terrorist organizations. White House spokesman Tony Snow suggested that those who met with Assad were "lending a further specter of legitimacy to that government" and potentially undermining "the cause of democracy in the region."
But Nelson, who called Assad's government "not a particularly nice regime, either to its citizens or its neighbors," criticized the administration for adopting what he called the "approach of an ostrich."
"It's not working," he said.
Asked by several audience members why he thought the United States should negotiate with Assad and what the Syrian leader might demand in return, Nelson suggested he had no answers but was interested in seeing the two countries start to talk.
"I'm just a little country lawyer," he said, his diplomacy speech suddenly tinged with a folksy demeanor, "but the first thing it seems to me, you need a dialogue. You talk about the weather.
"Personal relationships are a big deal in that part of the world," he said, noting that CIA Director Michael Hayden had urged him to add Saudi Arabia to his itinerary because no congressional delegation had visited the country in two years.
"I don't know what door we come in," Nelson said. "But I found in politics if you can't get in the front door, go around and try the back door, and if that's locked, try the side window."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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