WASHINGTON – Rep. Tom Lantos,D-Calif,finds himself at the helm of a committee that deals with nation's foremost concern in the wake of the Nov. 7 elections and the long-anticipated Iraq Study Group report.
The slated chair of the House International Relations committee has made it clear his chairmanship will reflect what has characterized the 25 years leading up to it: a pledge to diplomacy.
“I strongly believe in treating all countries – whether we agree with them or not – with some degree of courtesy and respect,” Lantos said in an interview in his office,”recognizing that no country has a monopoly of wisdom.”
The 13-term congressman will take the place of Rep. Henry Hyde,R-Ill.,who chaired the committee for six years.
His successor's commitment to multilateralism,however,will be tested when Congress reconvenes in January,said Nancy Roman,vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“It's easy to say the word multilateral,” Roman said. “It's much harder to build a consensus among the many different self interests of nation states. I think the goal is right,but the question is,what do you do when you pursue the goal and you don't get consensus?”
“Those questions will continue to be tough,no matter who's in charge,” she added.
The proliferation of sectarian violence in Iraq can be traced to insufficient military support from the very beginning,Lantos said,when the Pentagon dismissed Army Gen. Eric Shinseki's appeal for several hundred thousand troops in postwar Iraq.
“He was overruled and ridiculed,and in retrospect it's obvious that he was correct,” Lantos said. “It is understandable that many Iraqis are looking for a non-cruel strongman because recent governments have been unable to govern.”
Lantos said the Iraqi government will be forced to take charge as the U.S. gradually withdraws,adding,”We haven't given them enough time and resources and training to do that.”
Lantos,who led the reopening of dialogue with Albania and Libya,plans to apply these successful mediating experiences to talks with North Korea and Iran.
But Lantos added that U.S. diplomats cannot conduct reasonable talks with Iran's president,Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“I think it's important to realize that much of the hostility is unwarranted,outrageous,” Lantos said,citing the Sept. 20 tirade by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a United Nations address. “Here are basically leaders who are so consumed by their anti-Americanism that they cannot be taken seriously nor rationally argued with.”
In hearings,Lantos has garnered a reputation for his vigorous questioning and spearing of witness ambiguity,said Charles Gati,a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
Gati,who's known Lantos for more than two decades,recalled how the congressman lambasted Warren Christopher,the Clinton administration's secretary of state,for his handling of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Gati said instances like that reveal a politician unhampered by party alignment.
“I don't believe anyone gave Mr. Christopher a harder time about the conflict in the former Yugoslavia,” Gati said about Lantos. “I think the key to his behavior is his bipartisanship,his love for his country and a desire to get facts on the table.”
Danielle Doane,the Heritage Foundation's director of Congressional Relations for the U.S. House of Representatives,said conservatives regard Lantos as someone they “can work with.”
“He does not act on just a knee-jerk liberal reaction,” she said. “[Rep.] Nancy Pelosi [D,Calif.] keeps talking about how to be bipartisan,and I think he's actually the epitome of that.”
A Hungarian Holocaust survivor and founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus,Lantos' stance on human rights is buoyed by his past experiences,which include involvement in an anti-Nazi underground movement and,later,an anti-Communist faction.
Some critics say that background has made him a hawk too quick to embrace military action.
Such critiques,however,fail to measure up,Roman said.
“He's lived through a model of aggressive action having been successful,but I think that's as much as you can say,” she said,referring to World War II. “We've just had a model of aggressive action that was unsuccessful in Iraq,so that doesn't hold up.”
In comparison to its Senate counterpart,which is charged with ratifying treaties,Lantos' committee has kept a low profile,said Mike O'Hanlon,senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.
“I think Lantos has to view this as a challenge to raise the profile of that committee,” O'Hanlon said. “We've been letting our military and intelligence committees run the war on terror,which they should play a part in … but there also needs to be diplomacy.”