The most fascinating thing about Nancy Pelosi's visit to Damascus was . . . her head scarves.

She had a different print square for each Mideast stop, each coordinated with her suit. If only I could look so elegant entering a mosque; my head is usually swathed in some black swatch that has been crumpled into my bag.

You say I'm not giving the lady credit for jolting a failed Bush policy? Or I'm remiss for not denouncing her traitorous behavior in encouraging the enemy?

Double nonsense.

Endless legislators, both Democratic and Republican, including Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), have trooped through Damascus and met President Bashar al-Assad in recent months, with nothing to show for it. Ditto for this visit.

As for "aiding the enemy," the arrival of such a high-ranking Democrat probably did reaffirm Assad's belief he can sit Bush out and wait for a Democratic successor. But Assad was already wedded to a wait-'em-out strategy. The responsibility for that lies with the White House, not the speaker of the House.

President Bush still doesn't seem to grasp the meaning of the 2006 elections. The Democrats who took control of Congress were propelled by voters who wanted a change in Iraq policy. Four years of Iraq turmoil exposed the strategic fraud of a policy that relied mainly on military means to remake the region. It underscored the need for the kind of diplomacy this White House had scorned.

Some in the administration got the voters' message and started talking up diplomatic efforts on Iraq, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. But, despite serious work by top State Department pros, the White House commitment to these efforts remains doubtful. The diplomatic efforts often contradict one another, like the simultaneous push to punish Tehran and Damascus while seeking their cooperation on Iraq.

So no wonder the Democrats are restless. They are being asked to back a military "surge" policy in Baghdad, although everyone knows that military action alone can't calm Iraq. Any hope for a U.S. drawdown rests on skilled U.S. diplomacy that persuades all of Iraq's neighbors to stop meddling and work together to calm the sectarian violence. So far, White House backing for such regional diplomacy looks cosmetic.

This puts Democrats in a bind. They can wait for the White House to fail and to bequeath the Mideast mess to them in '08. Or they can try to press the White House through funding measures, troop deadlines - and Pelosi's grandstanding travels.

Sadly, the latter strategy - which the Democrats have adopted - is likely to make a bad Mideast situation worse. Setting Iraq deadlines does encourage hard-line Iraq insurgents of the al-Qaeda kind. It intimidates Sunni nationalists who might be thinking about laying down arms. Visiting Damascus does give Assad a small boost.

But even if Pelosi stayed home and the Dems withdrew their Iraq bills, the Bush approach would still be leading Americans down a blind alley. The White House resists putting muscle behind the one approach that might save Iraq and keep the Middle East from imploding. It continues to reject the one strategy that could unite Democrats and Republicans in a bipartisan effort.

That is the strategy laid out by the report of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group late last year, which the White House immediately rebuffed.

The beauty of the ISG report was that it gave the White House a framework both political parties could endorse. Its core proposals emphasized regional diplomacy. They set a target goal of 2008 withdrawal but left loopholes if progress (or regress) made more time necessary. Within this bipartisan framework, even a temporary troop surge would have been possible.

The ISG called for talking to Iran and Syria not as a reward for good behavior but as a means to clarify positions on both sides. This would not mean relaxing legitimate demands that both countries stop supporting terrorism or that Iran halt its tirades against Israel and freeze its suspect nuclear program. But it would mean giving up futile dreams of U.S.-inspired regime change in Damascus and Tehran.

Had the Bush team adopted the ISG approach - indeed, were it to do so now - Democrats could join Republicans in a last-ditch strategy that had a chance of working. Iran and Syria could no longer assume that it was worth stonewalling until 2008.

But first the White House would have to recognize that partisan foreign policy cannot work post-November 2006. And the White House would have to put real muscle and coherent strategy behind its diplomatic efforts.

Without such a White House shift, both parties will go their partisan ways. Both will undercut the last hopes of saving Iraq. The fault, however, lies not with Pelosi and her scarves, but with the man who heads the executive branch.

Contact columnist Trudy Rubin at 215-8545823 or