Since assuming the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January, Tom Lantos has been a man on a mission. The Democratic congressman from California has presided over a blizzard of committee hearings on topics ranging from Iraq to climate change to weapons of mass destruction to human rights.
He took a high-profile trip to the Middle East with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and defended her publicly when she was criticized for meeting with Syrian leaders. He has also met with foreign diplomats, sparred with Bush administration officials, drafted legislation, and participated in emotionally charged debates on the floor of the House.
Although he has been moving aggressively in a number of different directions, Lantos has a simple and clear strategy: “If I have one overarching goal, it is to begin the process of restoring the United States’s credibility, stature, prestige, weight and prominence in the world,” he said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat. “Over the past few years, the damage that has been done to our standing in the world has been very serious. I don’t think that in American history there has been comparable decline in U.S. standing and prestige in the world over such a short time.”
Courtly and steely, Lantos can speak with lofty eloquence or sledgehammer directness. He believes lawmakers have an important role to play in shaping U.S. foreign policy, funding important initiatives, studying issues, meeting with leaders from other nations, and overseeing the administration’s policies.
“I think Congress’s role in foreign policy is very important and can be very helpful,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a good-cop, bad-cop routine with the administration. Sometimes it’s reinforcing the administration’s message. Sometimes it’s showing we have different views.”
According to Lantos, Democratic control of Congress after the 2006 mid-term elections has ushered in a new period of congressional involvement in U.S. foreign policy. “When Congress and the administration are in different hands, then clearly the congressional role is dramatically more assertive and powerful. That is what is happening here,” he said.
Lantos brings to his work in Congress a stirring life story. One of the House’s most influential voices on foreign policy, Lantos is a native of Hungary and is the only Holocaust survivor in Congress. This experience, he said, changed his life and shaped his vision of the world.
When Lantos was 16, the Nazis swept into Budapest and began arresting Jews. He was sent to a forced labor camp in Szob, a village north of the capital. He escaped, was captured and severely beaten. He escaped a second time, making it back to Budapest and seeking refuge in a Wallenberg safe house that was an apartment building under Swedish diplomatic protection. With this as his base, he moved around Budapest, securing food and secretly delivering it to those in need.
After the Nazis were driven from Hungary by the Soviet Union, Lantos searched in vain for his parents, who had been killed. He later located a childhood friend, Annette Tillemann, who had fled to Switzerland. They married and had two children.
In 1947, Lantos won a scholarship to study in the United States. He received a master’s degree in economics from the University of Washington and then earned a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. He taught economics at San Francisco State University and later worked as a consultant to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Lantos was elected to Congress in 1980 and represents a Northern California district between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. He is now in his 14th term and is routinely re-elected by large margins.
Throughout his congressional career, Lantos has been deeply interested in foreign policy. He is using his current chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to delve into numerous issues and offer policy recommendations. “I probably read six hours a day and it’s all foreign policy. I love it. I can’t believe I get paid for this job,” he said.
Lantos voted in 2002 to give President Bush the authority to use force in Iraq, but he now believes the venture has gone badly and doubts it can be repaired. He noted that Congress has held more hearings on Iraq during the first three months of 2007 than in the previous four years combined, when Republicans controlled the Congress.
Lantos recently supported an emergency spending bill that would have established timelines for removing most U.S. combat troops from Iraq and benchmarks to hold the Iraqi government accountable for reaching a political solution to the civil war that is ravaging the country. Bush vetoed the bill and later signed another version of the spending bill that did not call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Lantos is not optimistic that Congress can do much to fix U.S. policy on Iraq, but vows to hold hearings to assess the situation and demand that the administration explain its policies.
“There is nothing new or original we can do regarding Iraq at this stage. You can’t unscramble an omelet. The mistakes we made five years ago, four years ago, three years ago can’t be rectified now, whether you call it a surge or a more careful reconstruction effort,” he said.
Regarding America’s other war in Afghanistan, Lantos drafted legislation—approved by the House in early June—that would authorize .4 billion in funds for counter-narcotics, security and health care in that country. Lantos called the bill very important because “Afghanistan is a brush fire that could easily ignite into an all-out conflagration.”
A fierce critic of Iran, Lantos said the current regime in Tehran is dangerous in ways that demand action and not just rhetoric. He accuses Iran of sponsoring and arming terror agents around the world, engaging in systematic attempts to destabilize Iraq, and counteracting U.S. efforts there.
Lantos has proposed an International Nuclear Fuel for Peace and Nonproliferation Act that would, in his words, “call Iran’s bluff” on nuclear energy. Under his plan, the United States would support an international fuel bank, and countries that agree not to engage in uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing—the telltale signs of weapons development—would receive assurances of a steady and reliable supply of nuclear fuel from this international fuel bank.
Lantos has also introduced legislation to bolster export and import sanctions on Iran and penalize companies in the United States and abroad that do business with Iran’s energy program.
A member of the congressional Progressive Caucus, Lantos is a passionate champion of human rights. He said Americans take great pride in their country’s legacy as the leading promoter and defender of human rights, but the Bush administration has been relegating human rights to the realm of rhetoric.
It’s essential, he said, for the United States to recover from this period of moral doubt and confusion. Such a U.S. re-emergence could help reverse the deterioration in global adherence to human rights standards, he argues, and would also help the United States win the war on terrorism by encouraging the growth of modern, pluralistic forces in other countries.
“There was a time when Russia cared about how they are perceived on human rights. My impression of the [President Vladimir] Putin regime is they don’t give a damn. With their petrodollars and their newly gained economic strength, they are perfectly happy to ignore all the criticisms. And I think China will fall back into that approach after the  Olympics,” Lantos charged.
“We have to continue without a moment’s let-up—from Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma to the Dalai Lama—recognizing that the world has grown far more cynical and disinterested in human rights than it used to be,” he added. “Fatigue sets in when ugly things become repetitive and not much happens. There is no doubt there is human rights fatigue and democracy-preaching fatigue. It’s important to recognize this but to continue to beat the drum.”
Lantos’s panel has held hearings on developments in both China and Russia, and he said events in these countries affect U.S. interests and values. Lantos believes the United States should support China’s emergence as a world power and partner with it to strengthen the international system. As one of the greatest civilizations in the world, he said China deserves respect for its long history, abundant traditions and distinguished culture.
But, he cautioned, although the United States should work with China in areas of common interest, it should not sweep vital issues under the rug. These disagreements include China’s increasingly assertive foreign and military policy and various internal actions, such as its uneven adherence to human rights standards.
Regarding Russia, Lantos said he was encouraged by Boris Yeltsin’s attempts to transform Russian politics and society but believes the Yeltsin years were only a fleeting moment of democracy and progress. Lantos is “profoundly disappointed” by Putin’s repression of dissidents, independent journalists and many others who oppose him, and he fears Russia is returning to its authoritarian past.
According to the congressman, Russia’s enormous energy wealth has given it new clout in foreign affairs, and the country is throwing its weight around in the region by cutting off natural gas supplies in the dead of winter to some former Soviet republics and to Western European countries. This draconian use of Russia’s energy wealth to enforce its policy preferences cannot be tolerated, he said.
Lantos also believes that both climate change and U.S. energy dependence are issues that have serious consequences for U.S. foreign policy. The United States, he argues, is gorging itself on oil from overseas—a habit that this is unsustainable, unhealthy and seriously weakens the nation. Therefore, securing and stabilizing the supply of energy should be a key component of U.S. national security.
In addition, Lantos said the United States must address the global warming crisis in a concrete and far-reaching way. The first task would be to fundamentally overhaul how the United States negotiates with its global partners on climate change, he said, accusing the Bush administration of sending low-level officials to key meetings with instructions to do little other than to defer action.
According to Lantos, the United States should lead the negotiations on a post-Kyoto framework that contains binding commitments for environmental action from all of the world’s polluters, including China and India. Furthermore, he contends that any meaningful, post-Kyoto agreement must have a viable target for stabilizing carbon dioxide concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere, binding emissions-reduction targets, and flexible mechanisms such as carbon trading to make the agreement economically workable.
Lantos admits that this is a difficult time for the United States, but said he is determined to challenge a number of Bush administration policies and try to be constructive. However, real change, he believes, will only come with a new U.S. president in 2009.
“We are going through an ugly phase. This is a cynical, tired and fatigued time and I don’t think it will change until we have a new president,” he said.
But that won’t stop him from pressing ahead and using his committee chairmanship as a platform. “Given my history, I’m passionately patriotic. If the U.S. were not to play the role it does, the world would be destabilized. No one else can play the role. I see the flaws of American foreign policy, but I put these in a broader historical context. I feel extremely comfortable representing and praising the United States. It comes naturally to me,” he said.
“I believe in the United States, our mission, our salutary presence on the international scene. I’m an internationalist and multilateralist. Basically our intentions are good. We have done more than anyone since the Second World War to preserve and stabilize the international order.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.