Vice President Dick Cheney accused US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday of "bad behaviour" on her Middle East trip, saying she bungled a message for Syria's president that was later clarified by Israel.
Cheney harshly criticised Pelosi's visit to Syria this week and declared in an interview, "The president is the one who conducts foreign policy, not the speaker of the House."
Pelosi's Syrian stopover was opposed from the start by the Bush administration, which accuses Damascus of sponsoring terrorism and says it should be isolated from the international community.
While in Damascus on Wednesday, Pelosi announced she had told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Israel was prepared to negotiate with Syria.
That prompted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office to underline the Jewish state's preconditions for such talks -- including that Syria abandon its "support for terrorist groups".
Cheney, pointing to the Israeli reaction, said it was obvious Olmert had not authorized the message Pelosi delivered.
"It was a non-statement, nonsensical statement and didn't make any sense at all that she would suggest that those talks could go forward as long as the Syrians conducted themselves as a prime state sponsor of terror," the vice president said on the Rush Limbaugh radio show.
"I think it is, in fact bad behavior on her part. I wish she hadn't done it," Cheney said. "Fortunately I think the various parties involved recognize she doesn't speak for the United States in those circumstances, she doesn't represent the administration."
Pelosi, the top House Democrat and next in line to the US presidency after Cheney, is the most senior US official to visit Syria in more than two years.
Pelosi's spokesman, Brendan Daly, asked to respond to Cheney's criticism, said the speaker accurately relayed the message from Olmert to Assad.
"The tough and serious message the speaker relayed was that, in order for Israel to engage in talks with Syria, the Syrian government must eliminate its links with extremist elements, including Hamas and Hezbollah," Daly said, referring to the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, and Lebanon's Hezbollah, which Israel fought in a war last year.
Pelosi's decision to defy the White House and meet Assad stepped up a tug of war between the Democratic-led Congress and Republican President George W Bush over foreign policy.
The two sides are already doing battle over Iraq policy, with Democrats trying to force Bush to accept a date for withdrawing US troops.
Pelosi was also slammed on Thursday by a Washington Post editorial that was headlined "Pratfall in Damascus" and called her Middle East shuttle diplomacy "foolish".