New Democratic CongressEnvisions New Opportunities

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It remains to be seen how aggressively Democrats in the new U.S. Congress will confront President Bush over the Iraq war. But elsewhere, from trade to security to dealing with global hotspots, incoming Democratic leaders have a bundle of tools to change U.S. involvement with the world, or at least bring attention to the issues more of their choosing.

Even where Democrats and Republicans share similar views, Democrats say their fresh faces will give new opportunities to leverage America’s leadership and enlist other nations to its causes.

One such face—already well known to the diplomatic community—is that of Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), incoming chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Lantos helped manage the bill in Congress that supported Bush’s run-up to the Iraq war. He also takes a hard line on Iran and Syria, and is a strong supporter of Israel. But Lantos, a native of Hungary and a Holocaust survivor, figures he may be more effective than the Republicans at finding solutions to the seemingly intractable conflicts of the Middle East.

“He wants to see what the constructive ways are … to get to the point where we are able to form coalitions in international problems, so the United States doesn’t continually take the role of global sheriff,” Lynne Weil, Lantos’s communications director, told The Washington Diplomat.

Lantos plans for his panel to quiz plenty of experts, including members of the Iraq Study Group (the Baker-Hamilton Commission), as well as former secretaries of state, national security advisers, and U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, in an effort to find an Iraq plan. Weil said the committee would look back at what’s gone wrong, but also look forward for solutions.

Critics from both the left and right, however, question whether Lantos—along with news-show regulars Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a possible presidential candidate—will differ significantly from the Republicans on big foreign policy issues.

“I think [Lantos] might be an impediment to substantive change in the [Iraqi] policy,” said Paul George, executive director of the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, an antiwar group based in Palo Alto, Calif. “He will not be a supporter of any major change in the policy, let alone a massive withdrawal of troops.”

What’s more, Congress can only do so much to influence the war. Its most powerful tool may be its power of the purse, but tying up war funds would create a political showdown with the president that the Democrats may not want.

“If [Bush] doesn’t want to move, it will be hard for Congress to force him to do so,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, at a recent panel discussion.

Pletka, who worked 10 years on the Republican side of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, predicted that investigations “and getting into e-mails and files to figure out who knew what when,” may be the Democrats’ most effective tool. What’s more, she argues, the Democrats have abandoned their one-time leadership on global human rights issues.

“When the Democrats talk about human rights, they are talking about the human rights of people who are at Guantanamo Bay,” she said. “They’re talking about the human rights of terrorists who are moved around to various places. They are not talking about human rights of political prisoners in Egypt or Libya or Russia or China as much as they used to.… To the contrary, they want us to engage the dictators.”

Democrats, however, claim that their new leadership restores America’s credibility to lead on such issues. Lantos, for example, has helped to raise the profile of the crisis in Darfur, even getting arrested in front of the Sudanese Embassy. “He has been calling for stronger United States leadership in getting an international consensus in doing something,” said Weil. “He’s looking for different ways to approach Sudan, to see if the United States can use its leadership position for stronger international consensus on Sudan.”

Lantos also believes the new leadership can help in changing North Korea’s aggressive posture on nuclear weapons. He’s visited the closed nation twice and would like to go again, emphasizing bilateral communication between Washington and Pyongyang in the context of the ongoing six-party talks.

It remains to be seen how aggressively Democrats in the new U.S. Congress will confront President Bush over the Iraq war. But elsewhere, from trade to security to dealing with global hotspots, incoming Democratic leaders have a bundle of tools to change U.S. involvement with the world, or at least bring attention to the issues more of their choosing.

Even where Democrats and Republicans share similar views, Democrats say their fresh faces will give new opportunities to leverage America’s leadership and enlist other nations to its causes.

One such face—already well known to the diplomatic community—is that of Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), incoming chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Lantos helped manage the bill in Congress that supported Bush’s run-up to the Iraq war. He also takes a hard line on Iran and Syria, and is a strong supporter of Israel. But Lantos, a native of Hungary and a Holocaust survivor, figures he may be more effective than the Republicans at finding solutions to the seemingly intractable conflicts of the Middle East.

“He wants to see what the constructive ways are … to get to the point where we are able to form coalitions in international problems, so the United States doesn’t continually take the role of global sheriff,” Lynne Weil, Lantos’s communications director, told The Washington Diplomat.

Lantos plans for his panel to quiz plenty of experts, including members of the Iraq Study Group (the Baker-Hamilton Commission), as well as former secretaries of state, national security advisers, and U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, in an effort to find an Iraq plan. Weil said the committee would look back at what’s gone wrong, but also look forward for solutions.

Critics from both the left and right, however, question whether Lantos—along with news-show regulars Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a possible presidential candidate—will differ significantly from the Republicans on big foreign policy issues.

“I think [Lantos] might be an impediment to substantive change in the [Iraqi] policy,” said Paul George, executive director of the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, an antiwar group based in Palo Alto, Calif. “He will not be a supporter of any major change in the policy, let alone a massive withdrawal of troops.”

What’s more, Congress can only do so much to influence the war. Its most powerful tool may be its power of the purse, but tying up war funds would create a political showdown with the president that the Democrats may not want.

“If [Bush] doesn’t want to move, it will be hard for Congress to force him to do so,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, at a recent panel discussion.

Pletka, who worked 10 years on the Republican side of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, predicted that investigations “and getting into e-mails and files to figure out who knew what when,” may be the Democrats’ most effective tool. What’s more, she argues, the Democrats have abandoned their one-time leadership on global human rights issues.

“When the Democrats talk about human rights, they are talking about the human rights of people who are at Guantanamo Bay,” she said. “They’re talking about the human rights of terrorists who are moved around to various places. They are not talking about human rights of political prisoners in Egypt or Libya or Russia or China as much as they used to.… To the contrary, they want us to engage the dictators.”

Democrats, however, claim that their new leadership restores America’s credibility to lead on such issues. Lantos, for example, has helped to raise the profile of the crisis in Darfur, even getting arrested in front of the Sudanese Embassy. “He has been calling for stronger United States leadership in getting an international consensus in doing something,” said Weil. “He’s looking for different ways to approach Sudan, to see if the United States can use its leadership position for stronger international consensus on Sudan.”

Lantos also believes the new leadership can help in changing North Korea’s aggressive posture on nuclear weapons. He’s visited the closed nation twice and would like to go again, emphasizing bilateral communication between Washington and Pyongyang in the context of the ongoing six-party talks.

About the Author

Sanjay Talwani is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on April 7, 2011