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Lantos Says No ‘Silver Bullet’ on Iraq But Baker Panel Can Help Bipartisanship

Interviewee: Ranking member of House International Relations Committee Rep. Thomas Lantos (D-CA)
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor
November 20, 2006

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Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) is due to assume the chairmanship of the House International Relations Committee in January when a Democratic majority is seated in the new Congress, making him one of the chamber’s foremost foreign policy spokesmen. The turnover in power from Republicans to Democrats in the November midterm elections was attributed in part to dissatisfaction over the handling of Iraq war policy. Democratic Party leaders say they have a mandate to press for a change in this policy, but they have offered differing options on how to proceed. Lantos says they generally support a phased withdrawal ofU.S.troops from Iraq.

The California Democrat says the forthcoming report of the Iraq Study Group provides an opportunity to reach a bipartisan solution on Iraq. But he cautions that the panel headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III and Lee H. Hamilton contains no “silver bullet.” All possible options for Iraq, Lantos adds, “have been explored and debated and discussed ad nauseam and ad infinitum. I would be very surprised to see new and thus far unexplored options from Baker-Hamilton.” Lantos says as chair of the House International Relations Committee, he will push to change the “tenor and tone” of U.S. foreign policy, including more steady involvement with multilateral agencies and more direct bilateral engagement with nations such as North Korea.

Have the Democrats coalesced around an Iraq policy?

You probably have seen the [preelection] letter that on a bicameral basis the foreign policy leadership sent to the president. [It] represents the united position of the Democratic leadership in the House and in the Senate, so we literally are all on the same page. One of the recommendations we made was that we need a change of secretary of defense, and this has now happened. [A] second recommendation called for a change in course, leading to a phased withdrawal. I believe, although the details will have to be hammered out, this will be the united Democratic position.

Everybody is waiting for the Baker-Hamilton commission report. But is too much stock perhaps being given to this?

I couldn’t agree with you more. I think it’s really unfair to Baker-Hamilton to expect a silver bullet. There are no silver bullets. All of the conceivable options, ranging from the immediate withdrawal to the recent [Sen.] John McCain [R-AZ] proposal of increasing our troop strength, have been explored and debated and discussed ad nauseam and ad infinitum. I would be very surprised to see new and thus far unexplored options from Baker-Hamilton. I think, nevertheless, the report will have considerable value, first in its timing. It’s a good thing it comes after the election because people are able to examine the issue more soberly in a less partisan fashion, hopefully in a bipartisan fashion. Secondly this is a committee made up of well-respected individuals of both political parties which will certainly make me and, I trust, most of my colleagues look at their thoughts and suggestions seriously. But your comment is exactly what I have been telling my colleagues: There have been unreasonably high expectations about what this report will do.

Staying in the Middle East, British Prime Minister Tony Blair on November 16 suggested connecting a solution with Iraq with progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Should the United States be pushing this solution a little bit more perhaps, appointing an envoy in that area?

The basic outlines of the “road map” quite clearly represent the fundamental resolution of that conflict—two states living side by side in security and hopefully growing prosperity and cooperation. There is very broad agreement on that. The sine qua non of moving in that direction is the termination of terrorism. So the notion that this can be achieved while Hezbollah and Hamas continue terrorist acts and, as in last summer, precipitate a major war, makes much progress along these lines difficult to envision.

Everybody understands we have to solve this. I was in Libya as the Hezbollah war was ending and then flew first for Jordan and Israel through Larnaca, Cyprus, because you couldn’t fly into Lebanon directly. A U.S. military helicopter took me into Beirut where I had discussions with the top Lebanese leadership. I pointed out to them that they have to request the United Nations to deploy not only along the Israel-Lebanon border, which I have advocated for many years, but also on the Lebanon-Syria border because unless this is done, Hezbollah will continue to be resupplied by Iran and Syria. So people who say we have to solve the Arab-Israeli crisis are quite correct, but step one in that solution is the termination of terrorism.

In terms of the gravest threats to the United States, are there other areas people are overlooking because of the preoccupation with Iraq?

Well, the plate is full. I would have to say the immediate and most serious problem is Iran, but I would quickly add North Korea and a number of other long-term dangers. It’s clear that Afghanistan is heating up. I proposed that NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] take over there several years ago, and I’m delighted NATO is there now, but [it is] not in sufficient force. So, you know, it’s self-evident that the timeline that you look at determines which crisis you find the most pressing. [Former Vice President] Al Gore looks at global warming, which is an incredibly important international issue. But the timeline is a little different from the Iranian nuclear threat. So the plate will be full for us over the next few years.

You mentioned North Korea. You have called for a new approach there, including a special envoy in Pyongyang.

And direct discussions. I have felt for decades that as long as we send knowledgeable and intelligent and reasonable interlocutors to areas where we haven’t had any contact, only good can come of it. I opened the dialogue with Libya almost three years ago. I’ve been back now six times and when I first set foot in Tripoli there was not a single American diplomat in the country. We now have a full-fledged diplomatic operation there and they have one here. My visits to North Korea, I felt, were very productive, and while I support the administration’s view that the Six-Party Talks are useful in the nuclear arena since the North Korea issue is not a U.S.-North Korea issue but involves others, I don’t think that should be the exclusive channel of dialogue between the United States and North Korea because we have lots of bilateral issues to discuss. So I hope the administration was listening to my statement earlier this week calling for a direct bilateral dialogue with North Korea.

That whole idea of stronger direct ties with North Korea and others really seems to be building. The United States’ allies speak of it, you have spoken of it, Republicans are increasingly speaking of it. Is the case of Libya a model for Iran?

I have presented that argument in every forum I could because I think it’s a relevant argument. Five years ago, the notion of talking to Colonel [Muammar] Qaddafi seemed absurd, and I can tell you I have very long and very cordial multi-hour discussions with him every time I go. And I think those are positive and some of the consequences have already been visible. I am convinced this will be equally true in North Korea. When I was there last time I proposed that the Pyongyang circus come to the United States, and I wish the suggestion would have been embraced by the administration. I think it would have broken the ice. Ping-pong diplomacy with the Chinese, although not to be overrated, nevertheless opened up a very simple and harmless little channel which then blossomed.

Using that same approach, Iran has a president who has repeatedly spoken out on denying the Holocaust. How do you go about engaging that government?

That’s an excellent question. I have had several excellent meetings with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations and I hope to see him next Tuesday [November 21]. The government in Iran, I think, bears an enormously heavy responsibility for a failure of dialogue thus far because despite personal interventions by [UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan on my behalf and former president of the UN General Assembly, the Swedish foreign minister until recently, Jan Eliasson, the Iranians have so far refused to issue a visa to me. So I can’t blame our government for a failure of a dialogue with Iran when the Iranians don’t give a visa to senior members of the U.S. Congress’ [House] International Relations Committee [HIRC]. But I hope they will change their view and the day they do I will be on a plane to Tehran.

That committee has spent quite a bit of time the last few years investigating the United Nations. Are you satisfied that some of the reform efforts that have been pressed are on course or does that need much more congressional scrutiny?

Dramatically more. I’m delighted with what modest changes have been taken. I think the record shows that in the human rights field these have not brought about any improvement, maybe a marginal improvement. I am seeing the incoming secretary-general next week and I will continue to maintain my role as perhaps the principal congressional interlocutor with the United Nations. I think we need to become more heavily involved with many international organizations. I was among a handful of people in Vienna at the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] for serious discussions, and I think it’s our responsibility to work with these agencies on an ongoing and regular basis and develop personal relationships with the leadership there.

On a more general basis, what can we expect to see with HIRC in the months ahead?

You know, I view my number one task to be a change in the tone and tenor of U.S. foreign policy. I am an internationalist and a multilateralist and as you know better than I do, the recent public opinion surveys do not show us in a very favorable light. I will do my utmost to persuade countries literally across the globe that we take them seriously, we listen to their views with respect whether we agree with them or not, and we should find avenues of cooperation, collaboration, and alliance depending on each individual case. But I anticipate that even during the first two years of the upcoming period, you will see from the congressional side a very different tone and tenor in our approach to other countries.

On public diplomacy, how do you view the U.S. effort now, which has been ratcheting up during the last couple of years?

Well, I’m passionately committed to public diplomacy and I will devote as many hearings as we possibly can to the specifics of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy really is a many-faceted thing. I am pleased to note the number of foreign students coming here is again on the increase. I devoted ten years of my life first to establishing and then running the study abroad program for the state university system in California. We have a huge task there but the policies have to match our rhetoric and we must assume—because that’s the only realistic assumption—that in this day and age everybody knows everything, everybody reads the same things, and watches the same things. We have to be very clear in our actions and have our actions reflect our values.

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