Human rights advocate Lantos holds mix of left - and right-wing views

A Holocaust survivor, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) is a fierce proponent of human rights — a stance that has affected U.S. relations with Turkey and policy towards Iran. Yet outside the humanitarian sphere he is seen as pragmatic on foreign affairs, and is seeking to trace a path between the administration’s unilateralist interventionism and the multilateralist views of the House Democratic majority.

Lantos, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, espouses policies that do not always sit easily on either side of the partisan divide. Lantos is strongly pro-Israel, supported President George Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is outspoken on issues of genocide and human rights. He is also a strong ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Some of his views, particularly on Iraq, have put him at odds with the majority of his Democratic colleagues, but his position on Israel (typical of members of both parties in Congress) and his centrist stands on other key foreign policy issues may afford him opportunities to build bridges between the administration and congressional Democrats.

Milestones

• Lantos’s determined advocacy for human rights is rooted in his experiences as a Jewish teenager in Hungary during World War II.

• A Holocaust survivor, he dispenses with diplomatic niceties when addressing instances of alleged genocide and rights violations — but is also a committed supporter of Israel.

• His academic background makes him a liberal internationalist, but he was sympathetic to neoconservative views during the 2002-03 debate over whether to topple former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

• As chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, he has tended to give principle priority over near-term U.S. strategic interests.

Formative experiences

Lantos’s perspective on global affairs was shaped by personal experience:

• Teenage refugee. He was born in Hungary in 1928 and raised in Budapest. A teenager during the Second World War, he was deported to a labor camp, but escaped and found refuge in a safe house under the protection of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

• Academic background. Lantos came to the United States in 1947, took his first and master’s degrees at the University of Washington in Seattle and gained a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley.

• Political career. He went on to a career as a college professor and television commentator on international affairs. He ran successfully for the House of Representatives in 1980, representing California’s 12th congressional district, and quickly became a leading figure in the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which he now co-chairs with Virginia Republican Frank Wolf.

• Peak of influence. When the Democrats took control of Congress in January, he became chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The committee is less powerful than its Senate counterpart (the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) because only the Senate has the constitutional authority to approve or block appointments and treaties. However, it is still a key part of the foreign policy process because it authorizes programs such as foreign aid and has the power to hold oversight hearings and help shape the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

Liberal constituents

Lantos’s district encompasses southwestern San Francisco and the suburbs to the south, on what is known as the Peninsula. His district includes working-class areas and towns made affluent by biotechnology and other high-tech enterprises that are now the hallmarks of the Bay Area. The constituency is remarkably diverse ethnically, with Asian- and Hispanic-Americans comprising about 45 percent of the population. It was once a stronghold of Republican progressives, but is now solidly Democratic. Lantos won with 76 percent of the vote in 2006, 2 percentage points higher than John Kerry’s tally in the district against Bush in 2004.

Complex views

Superficially, Lantos’s policy views appear to be those of a left-wing Democrat, yet his outlook on foreign affairs is sometimes surprisingly congruent with the Bush administration’s approach:

• High ‘liberal’ ratings. He has high scores in ratings issued by U.S. “liberal” (i.e., center-left) groups such as Americans for Democratic Action and the American Civil Liberties Union, and low scores from the National Taxpayers Union and the American Conservative Union. He favors abortion rights and stem cell research and — based on his personal experiences — is a very strong advocate for human rights at home and abroad, and an opponent of governments that in any way persecute minorities.

• Occasional Bush backer. Yet he is not a party-line Democrat on foreign affairs. Lantos believes that principles — which for him include uncompromising support for human rights and the Israeli government — come before party politics:

• Praise for DeLay. For example, at a 2003 award ceremony where he received the Friend of Israel Award at the Stand for Israel Washington briefing dinner, Lantos praised his co-honoree, then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). DeLay was a devoted partisan who used aggressive political tactics to undermine the Democrats.

• ‘America’s battle.’ Lantos often made common cause with DeLay on issues pertaining to Israel — particularly the Iraq war. At the Stand for Israel dinner, he expressed regret for failing to deliver a majority of the House Democratic Caucus in support of the Iraq war resolution. He also characterized the struggle for freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law abroad as “America’s battle,” which he was pleased had been “extended to the Middle East.”

• Independent stands. Lantos has steadily grown into his role as leader of the Foreign Affairs Committee, after the Democrats seized control of the House in the November 2006 elections. His evolving approach remains principles-oriented and determinedly independent:

• Party-line stands. The continuing chaos in Iraq has moved him to adopt a more typically Democratic position on the conflict, and he co-sponsored the resolution this year opposing Bush’s troop “surge.” He accompanied Pelosi on her controversial trip to Syria, and his committee has frequently held oversight hearings critical of the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

• Mixed views on Iran. He has often urged the administration to conduct a dialogue with Iran. Yet he also allowed in September the passage of a measure through committee that would impose stiff sanctions on any foreign firm that does more than $20 million per year in business with Iran’s energy industry, and eliminate the president’s discretion (under current law) to waive such penalties. Although he said that the intent was to make Tehran choose between a carrot and “a very sharp stick,” the law would make securing international cooperation against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in effect, impossible. By contrast, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) is unlikely to allow the measure to come to a vote.

• Turkish imbroglio. Led by Lantos, the committee voted on Oct. 10 to condemn the “genocide” of Armenians in what is now Turkey during the First World War. The move precipitated a crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations, which were already under strain due to attacks on Turkish soldiers by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas based in northern Iraq. Turkey is a key source of air supply for U.S. forces in Iraq. Pressure from the administration and Ankara eventually led Pelosi to withdraw the measure from consideration by the full House, after key supporters backed away from the bill.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com.