WASHINGTON (AP) - Secretary of State Colin Powell Sunday defended his trip to Syria against criticism from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, saying it was a necessary trip ordered by President Bush.
Gingrich had called the trip ludicrous. If so, Powell said, he's calling the president ludicrous, too.
Also Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied that Gingrich was speaking for him when he blasted Powell in an April 22 speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
In that speech, Gingrich lambasted the State Department, saying its Middle East policy "will clearly throw away all the fruits of hard-won victory" in the Iraq war.
Powell returned Saturday from a trip to the region that included a three-hour meeting in Damascus with President Bashar Assad.
The Georgia Republican said that to meet "with a terrorist-supporting, secret police-wielding dictator is ludicrous."
Powell fired back: "He's accusing the president of a ludicrous act," he said.
"Mr. Gingrich was taking a broad swipe and a shot at the policies of the president of the United States," he said. "He was allegedly doing it because he has some dissatisfaction with the way the State Department runs. But he missed the State Department and hit the president."
He added that he and Assad had a candid discussion - which in diplomatic terms means it was frank, possibly contentious. The pair discussed what Americans expect of Syria in the U.S. push for change in the Middle East in the aftermath of war in Iraq.
The trip was a decision of the Bush team, Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"We all agreed as a team that it was in the interest of the United States, as we moved forward in this new strategic environment, to have a straight, candid conversation with the president of Syria," he said.
Gingrich, House speaker from 1995-98, is a member of the Defense Policy Board, a panel of military and security specialists who advise the secretary and other top Pentagon officials on strategy and impact of defense policies and weapons.
Some have suggested that Rumsfeld must have at least known about Gingrich's speech before he delivered it.
But on Sunday, Rumsfeld called such speculation nonsense. "I didn't know about it," he said on "Fox News Sunday."
"Look, Colin Powell went to Damascus not because Colin Powell got up some day and decided he wanted to go Damascus," Rumsfeld said. "He went to Damascus because the president of the United States decided it made sense for the secretary of state to go to Damascus.
"Now, if you don't like the decision, don't blame the secretary; blame the president."
Since early in the Bush administration officials have denied stories about a power struggle between Rumsfeld and Powell.
Administration officials have denied it.
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