One of the first things Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) did on her controversial trip to the Middle East was meet with the families of the three Israeli soldiers heldcaptive by Hamas and Hezbollah. The families gave Pelosi dog tags printed with their loved ones’ names.

When she and her fellow members of Congress arrived in Syria, they presented Syrian President Bashir Assad with the dog tags and asked for his help in securing the Israelis’ release.

Assad took the mementos from Pelosi, but betrayed no expression. This exchange has been reported in press accounts of the trip. But according to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who accompanied Pelosi, she went a step further: She presented Assad with a list of names of other Israeli soldiers from previous wars as yet unaccounted for.

“She went through their names,” Waxman told me in a phone interview when he returned. “She did that at each stop.”

To paint the Pelosi trip as anything less than helpful to American and Israeli interests, and to depict Pelosi and those who accompanied her as anything less than firm and diplomatic in representing American interests, is foolish.

Vice President Dick Cheney went on the Rush Limbaugh radio program to demean the trip and cast doubts on the toughness of its participants (see related story, page 10). I can only assume Limbaugh’s listeners have never heard of Google. Pelosi has a sterling voting record on Israel. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, knows a thing or two about standing up to despots. Waxman has been a fixture of pro-Israel legislation for more than two decades. He joined the Israel leg of the trip after spending Passover with his daughter and grandchildren, who live on a moshav near Jerusalem. I asked him what he ate at the banquets in Syria and Saudi Arabia.

“Fish and vegetables,” he said. “They didn’t serve us matzah.”

The purpose of the trip, Waxman said, was simple: to convey to Arab leaders the importance of clamping down on terrorists and of pursuing peace with Israel. The response of the Arab leaders was welcoming but hardly encouraging.

“The thing that struck me was how weak [Palestinian leader] Abu Mazen and how weak the government of Syria are,” Waxman said. “Neither seems to be able to control Hamas or Hezbollah.”

That leaves Israel without a strong partner, and Israel itself has a weak leader in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose approval rating hovers just above the opinion polls’ margin of error of 4 percent. The dust-up over whether Pelosi accurately conveyed the Israeli prime minister’s message to Syria seemed resolved by Monday, when Pelosi called Olmert, who, according to Waxman, contradicted himself and expressed his approval for her actions.

But Pelosi, Waxman and company weren’t there to solve the Mideast crisis. They went to communicate America’s position and to keep dialogue open. It’s called diplomacy.

“The speaker told each leader that the United States’ interest is a safe and secure Jewish State of Israel,” Waxman recounted. “And she made sure they heard her say it that way.”

As for the Israeli prisoners, Waxman described a run-around. The Palestinians said the Egyptians and Syrians were calling the shots. The Syrians said they had no sway over Hezbollah, which captured two of the soldiers. But one can hope that it made an impression on Assad when the third most powerful American leader pressed those Israeli dog tags into his palm.

So why all the negativity?

Waxman said the administration is focused on building a case against the Democrats in preparation for a showdown over the Iraq War funding bill. The more they can paint Democrats as weak and irresponsible, the more likely the Democrats will knuckle under and let the president continue the war unchecked. It’s been known to happen.

So Cheney trashes the reputation of men like Lantos and Waxman (who, by the way, has doggedly pursued waste and mismanagement in Iraq by Halliburton, the company that made Cheney rich), and it’s politics as usual.

But those who know better, Republican or Democrat, should send a clear message to Cheney: Send Pelosi back.

That’s right. She did a superb job. The Arab media love her — on C-SPAN I watched an al-Arabiya reporter gush over her — and, what’s more, the success of her trip had to send shivers through Teheran. Syria, a Sunni majority country whose Allawite leadership is a Shiite offshoot, is Iran’s strongest ally in the Middle East.

“Was Teheran happy about the visit of the speaker?” said Joschka Fischer, former foreign minister and vice chancellor of Germany, at a Pacific Council for International Policy luncheon last week. “I would say no. Because once they lose Syria, they lose their last ally in the region.”

But Pelosi’s critics, who include The Washington Post editorial page, don’t see it that way. They say such visits can undermine the president’s foreign policy.

And how’s that policy working out? Well, this week, Iran announced it would start producing industrial quantities of nuclear material.

Dear Speaker Pelosi: I hear Teheran is beautiful in the spring.

Rep. Waxman will speak April 15 at 10 a.m. at Plummer Park about his trip to Syria. For more information and to R.S.V.P., contact (323) 658-8683.