Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) this month concludes thirty-two years in the House of Representatives with concerns about U.S. public diplomacy, foreign policy partisanship, and unfinished reforms of the United Nations. Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee for the past six years, says he hopes recent discussions on Iraq and the approval of a new defense secretary signal a new era of bipartisanship in foreign policy.
The eighty-one-year-old Hyde says partisan attacks on President Bush “in a time of war has more serious consequences than the routine political partisanship.” Now, he says, with Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress, they have a greater stake in the success of the administration’s Iraq policy. “They recognize, as the unanimous vote of the Baker Commission recognized, that you can’t precipitously walk away from the war in the Middle East,” said Hyde.
Your final few days are proving to be quite significant on the foreign policy front. Do you see this as a pivotal time in U.S. foreign policy?
Yes I do. I’m a little disappointed there’s so much action on the foreign policy front as I’m retiring. But there is an international focus, particularly on the Middle East, but [also] North Korea, and other global areas and it looks like the immediate future will be quite interesting.
How do you respond to what you’ve heard this week from both the [Robert M.] Gates hearings as well as the Iraq Study Group?
First of all, the Gates hearings were well handled. They came out with a unanimous vote on the [Senate Armed Services] committee for Bob Gates and I think that was well advised. I think maybe if his nomination had been presented at another time, he might have had a rougher go. It is a good signal that even the administration’s adversaries are beginning to see the wisdom, the necessity of rallying around the president in this time of war. I was at a meeting yesterday at the White House with some senators and congressmen on a bipartisan basis and the theme that emerged from the interesting conversations was the need to support the president in the forthcoming negotiations and relationships evolving in the Middle East.
With the new party taking control of Congress there has been much talk of them having greater oversight of the administration. With the Republicans controlling both houses was there sufficient oversight of the administration?
Many times Congress reacted to things. I was reviewing a litany of subjects that we delved into and I noticed oil-for-food [scandal involving UN humanitarian program in Iraq]. That got everyone excited for a while and then it just sort of petered out. It still is a scandal and one that requires some activity and some actions, some sanctions, but I think it’s just going to fade away like so many of these causes do. But I don’t see how in the coming two years leading up the presidential election there can be any lessening of partisan fervor and this partisan fervor takes the form of questioning the president’s integrity—however they phrase it—and his intentions, not to say his capacity to perform as chief executive. There has been a deterioration in civility that in a time of war has more serious consequences than the routine political partisanship.
You were a catalyst behind UN reform legislation. How do you see that effort as it has played out in terms of what the United Nations has done, what is still underway, and what may still be possible?
Reforming the United Nations is a major challenge and it’s something we ought to aspire to with increasing fervor. I’m convinced there’s no way to compel reforms at the United Nations without using the weapon of dues withholding. It’s impossible to motivate an unwieldy organization which depends for its actions upon a consensus that waters down every serious effort at reform. We spent quite a bit of time suggesting reforms. Some of them pretty elementary, in terms of accountability and transparency. But as Simon Bolivar said, it’s “plowing the sea” trying to get the United Nations to take these recommendations seriously and take some action on them. But we’ll continue to try. I would look forward to the day even though I will have long since retired, or worse, to seeing the UN reform and seeing some effective sanctions if they fit, but the United States paying the high percentage of the dues they face plus peacekeeping expenses—to be a paper tiger in terms of reforms is more than anomalous, it’s ridiculous.
That approach of withholding funds has raised protest both in the administration as well as in some member states of the United Nations. Do you acknowledge concerns about that type of approach being antagonizing, even to U.S. allies, by using such a blunt instrument?
Well, the United Nations is a sacred cow with important elements of the foreign policy establishment. Its actions are above reproach and many of the most strident voices defending the United Nations from the practical consequences of withholding dues are domestic, they are members of the United States Senate. But if we don’t reform the United Nations sooner or later a majority of the people will begin to pay attention as to how much this is costing us and just what we are or are not getting out of it. When that happens there may be a reaction. I would like to be around to watch it.
The U.S. Congress has been increasingly active in listing countries that don’t adhere to what are perceived as norms in human rights behavior, including religious freedom. But again, there’s this resentment from some countries. Do you think such a listing has been effective?
I have always had mixed feelings about our role in the international human rights arena. I do recognize that there is a form of arrogance in our dictating the conduct other countries should engage in. On the other hand if we didn’t concern ourselves with these issues, they would go ignored and the sum total of oppression and abuse of people would continue unabated. So on balance I think our interest in human rights violations or availability or accessibility [of relief] is a good thing and I think it’s something we can be proud of. It also affords our adversaries an opportunity to point the finger at us and say, “Look what you’re doing.” That can have a therapeutic effect on our own domestic situation because we are capable of mistakes and errors.
On the issue of public diplomacy, when you had [Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy] Karen Hughes before your committee last year (PDF), you seemed to indicate that the United States should not be so preoccupied with charming other nations as with consistently defining its goals. Is that something the United States has been doing well lately?
I don’t think one can be satisfied with public diplomacy as practiced by our State Department. This report we just received yesterday from [ISG cochairs] Lee Hamilton and Jim Baker highlights a fact, a lamentable fact, that we have very few Arabic speakers and that the foreign policy element within our government doesn’t assign adequate personnel both through training, competency, and experience to some of these problems, particularly in the Middle East where they are acute. I don’t think enough people understand the hazards and the difficulties of selling America in some of these difficult areas such as the Middle East and southwest Asia.
Should it be “selling America” or perhaps propagating the ideas that Americans support that is more important?
Obviously, celebrating the ideas—that makes them more saleable.
Any words of advice for your longtime colleague, Tom Lantos (D-CA), as he takes over the reins of the committee?
I think one of the happy things in the wake of my retirement is that Tom Lantos will be chairman. I find Mr. Lantos a brilliant student of foreign policy and someone who has a fine grasp of history. One of my joys in my latter position as chairman was listening to Mr. Lantos recite all that America has done for the world, and Europe in particular, without much recognition. He is a good man and the subject of foreign policy will receive much attention under his tutorship.
As someone from the World War II generation, do you see the U.S. foreign policy debate coming back to a policy platform that involves traditional approaches—multilateralism, bipartisanship?
If yesterday’s meeting at the White House is any indicator, we’re emerging from a lopsided partisan approach to these serious questions and it’s clear the wisdom, the necessity of a bipartisan approach is becoming increasingly accepted. That may be because the power has been switched from one party to another and now the Democrats will have to be responsible. It’s their baby and they recognize, as the unanimous vote of the Baker Commission recognized, that you can’t precipitously walk away from the war in the Middle East.
Could this situation in Iraq have been avoided?
Yes, I think so, if the president had capable intelligence. To me the amazing fact is that all of the leading countries, including NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization], shared the same assessment that weapons of mass destruction were at hand or nearly at hand in Iraq. If you’re the president and you’re sitting there reading these intelligence reports every day being briefed, you have every reason to be concerned about Mr. Saddam Hussein. There’s no question in my mind that had those assailants who drove the aircraft into the high-rise buildings in New York and the Pentagon, had they available a nuclear bomb they would have loved to destroy three million people instead of three thousand.
I’ve never been thrilled with our intelligence. I remember being in Tehran about three months before the Shah abdicated [in 1979] and seeing all of the turmoil on the streets of Tehran. I remember how the Ayatollah Khomeini was looked upon [by U.S. intelligence experts] as a savior who was going to make things better in Iran.
So it’s a generation-long problem.
I remember on the floor of the House debating the issue of the Shah and how hated he was because he was a dictator. Of course the consequences of getting rid of him nobody bothered to think about because the information they got didn’t alert anybody that Khomeini was as wild and woolly as the Shah and worse.