Three days into his unofficial "fact-finding" mission in Syria, Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich is beginning to feel the heat back home for meeting with Syria's Bashar al-Assad and appearing to defend the President amidst the regime's brutal response to the Syrian uprising. On Tuesday, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency quoted Kucinich as praising the regime for seeking to end the violence, characterizing Assad as "highly loved and appreciated by the Syrians," and telling reporters at his hotel that some foreign news outlets want to "give a wrong picture about what is going on in Syria."
In a statement on Tuesday, Kucinich claimed, rather vaguely, that SANA may have inadvertently "mistranslated" some of his remarks, perhaps in part because of the "degree of appreciation and affection their state-sponsored media has for President Assad"--hardly a ringing denunciation of the agency's report. Foreign Policy's David Kenner didn't buy that explanation, since he imagined Kucinich made his remarks in English and SANA wouldn't have had to translate them. In what appears to be the only other account of the press gathering, CNN's Hala Gorani, who is in Damascus on assignment, wrote on Twitter, "Kucinich said Assad sees himself as 'father of the country' and is really 'concerned' about situation."
How does Kucinich's office respond to Kenner's skepticism about the mistranslation claims? The congressman's communications director, Nathan White, tells The Atlantic Wire that while Kucinich made his remarks in English, the journalists he was speaking with were using Arabic-language translators. White assumes that the SANA story was written up in Arabic and translated back into English, though he can't confirm this assumption (indeed, there is an Arabic version of the story on SANA's website). White also can't confirm whether the journalists at the hotel were from SANA.
Meanwhile, a backlash is brewing. In an editorial today the congressman's hometown Cleveland Plain-Dealer writes that while Kucinich says he's in Syria to "promote peace"--a cause he's undoubtedly committed to--"that isn't the likely effect of accepting the Syrian government's invitation to visit when an unknown number of Syrian protesters are dead and 12,000 refugees have fled to Turkey. Kucinich is allowing Assad to use him as a propaganda tool. And not for the first time" (Kucinich also met with Assad in 2007 and praised him on Syrian TV for pursuing peace in Iraq).
Criticism is coming from both the left and the right. Salon's Justin Elliott notes that Kucinich's alleged statements about Syrians' love for Assad and the regime's efforts to end the violence contradict "the reported facts" on the ground. The American Spectator's John Tabin writes that "while I have no doubt that SANA made Kucinich's remarks sound more pro-Assad than they were, that hardly absolves him of responsibility for appearing in Damascus in the first place." In comments to The Daily Caller, the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Rubin goes further: "Just as former Kennedy-era attorney general Ramsey Clark shilled for Ayatollah Khomeini, and British parliamentarian George Galloway shilled for Saddam Hussein, it seems that the Syrian dictator has found his useful idiot."
Salon raises another point: What does this incident mean for Kucinich's well-known anti-war credentials? If SANA's report is accurate, Elliott argues, "the congressman's reputation as someone who is serious about human rights will sustain serious damage." Politico situates the visit with Assad in a "string of eccentric incidents" involving the one-time presidential candidate. Kucinich's decision to "sue a House cafeteria over an olive pit that cracked his tooth has negatively affected his reputation," the paper writes, and "his April 2011 appearance on the Daily Show as a ventriloquist was seen by critics as bizarre." More recently, Kucinich has grabbed headlines for his opposition to President Obama's Libya campaign.
Update: Politico reports that there's another group mad at Kucinich: the Syrian-American Council, a U.S.-based Syrian opposition group. The organization's executive director, Yaser Tabbara, states that while Kucinich has a "record of standing up for what's principled and what's right in terms of human rights abuses," it's "mindboggling and confusing" that he's now "making these irresponsible, brash statements in support of the dictator ruling Syria and the person deemed to be an illegitimate president."
Here's a clip of Gorani's interview with Kucinich at his "press conference" in Damascus on Tuesday, which appears to have been more of an informal press gathering (in the clip, analyst Fouad Ajami also criticizes Kucinich):