Once upon a time, Republicans believed in diplomacy. They spoke with enemies. Recall Richard Nixon: As President, he negotiated with the Soviets, the Chinese and the North Vietnamese, who were shooting at US troops at the time. Nowadays, the Bush Administration too often dismisses diplomacy and, when it does, is cheered on by neoconservatives and conservatives who misguidedly equate communication with weakness. The recent hullabaloo about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria is illustrative. The White House and its allies denounced Pelosi for daring to speak to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, claiming she was undermining US policy. (Curiously, Bush didn’t slam three Republican House members who days earlier had conferred with Assad or lambaste GOP Representative Dave Hobson, part of the Pelosi delegation, or GOP Representative Darrell Issa, who met with Assad the day after Pelosi left Damascus.)

Yet Pelosi, who affirmed US policy toward Syria in her conversation with Assad, was merely following the advice of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker, which suggested that to find peace in Iraq it would be wise to try to deal with Iran and Syria. The Administration took a slight step in that direction when US diplomats attended a March security conference in Baghdad with Syrian and Iranian envoys. And for the moment–much to the consternation of conservatives–it is giving diplomacy a chance on North Korea. But when it comes to the big picture, the Administration still prefers bullying and threats of military action to the hard work of talking and negotiating. Iran’s defiant announcement that it has begun enriching uranium on an industrial scale shows that this approach hasn’t paid off.

Bush and his cowboy allies argue that America must isolate Iran and Syria. But because of Bush’s stunning misadventure in Iraq, the United States needs more, not fewer, channels of communication in that region. And with a greater US military presence in the Persian Gulf, the odds of an unintentional clash between Iran and the United States increase. Imagine what might have been triggered–perhaps accidentally–had Iranian military vessels surrounded an American ship instead of a British one. In the British-Iranian face-off, Prime Minister Tony Blair achieved the release of the British hostages without resorting to threats or force. Yet the big-stick crowd in Washington derided Blair.

On the day Pelosi was in Damascus, former President Jimmy Carter received the Ridenhour Courage Prize (co-sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation) for his efforts to speak candidly about the Middle East. Carter noted that day that the Bush Administration had earlier ordered him not to visit Syria–a request he had respected. But he supported Pelosi’s trip, and in his acceptance speech he cited the times he had met with “leaders who were considered to be international villains or criminals or pariahs.” He added, “My meeting with them, sometimes working with them, was necessary if destruction and suffering of war and the persecution of human rights abuses were to be ended or prevented.”

Bush does not believe in the power of negotiation and compromise–as evidenced even by his dealings with Congressional Democrats. He recently awarded recess appointments to nominees opposed by legislators, gratuitously poking the Democrats in the eye when he should be working with them, especially to resolve the mess in Iraq. Bush has isolated himself on domestic and foreign matters. We need more diplomacy–at home and abroad.