Ros-Lehtinen ready to shake up foreign policy establishment
The new House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) is unabashedly delighted to be taking the gavel in hand and, with it, to start taking on a raft of foreign policy issues. She began a phone interview with me yesterday with cheery informality: "Hi, this is Ileana." And she declared up front her plans for the committee: "We are going to have great fun taking about freedom and democracy."
She was careful not to overstate her committee's jurisdiction, noting that she does not chair the appropriations committee. She emphasized, however: "What we can do is shake the tree. There is always a better way to do things. Certainly, the State Department and international organizations can learn to do better." What she offers, she continued, is a forum for challenging "the tone, the tenor and the policy" of the administration. And she thinks there is a fundamental change needed. "We should stand with our allies and isolate our friends," she said. "Not the other way around."
She stressed that part of her focus is on making sure taxpayer money is well spent. ("The State Department works for the taxpayers. I work for the taxpayers.") But that is not what gets her juices flowing. She wants to play a role in "promoting the interests of the United States of America -- not being ashamed of American exceptionalism. We need to get back to the basics and make no apologies."
I asked her about the UN Human Rights Council, which the Obama administration decided to rejoin after the Bush administration pulled out. She rejected the idea that our presence has helped matters. "In the time we have been a participant, things have gone from bad to worse," she said. "I didn't think that rogue's gallery had yet sunk to the bottom of depravity -- I guess that would be the heights of depravity. They have castigated Israel in every possible way. I don't think our presence has made that body any more responsive." To the contrary, she said our involvement has backfired: "We have given it credibility. What have we got from it? Every serial abuser of human rights in the world gets the protection it needs by joining." She said she understands that money we spend at the United Nations is fungible, to a large extent, but her attitude is that we should "let the serial rights abusers fund their depravity."
Yes, she is a blunt woman, in stark contrast to the State Department's evasive and overly-cautious language. And she intends to grill the administration on foreign policy failures. I asked about our North Korea policy, and she fired back, "What is our policy? What have we accomplished?" She noted that the policy failure began under the Bush administration and has continued. Now, she cautioned, "it is an increasingly aggressive state," while China, she argued, has distinguished itself "by its refusal to rein in" its neighbor. She urged the U.S. to impose new sanctions and "to immediately relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism." And she castigated the Bush administration for removing the regime from the list: "It was part of naive engagement. It didn't work then and it doesn't work now."
Shifting to Russia, she argued against ratification of the START treaty, making the case that "it will put us in a strategic straight-jacket." As Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has been doing, she argues that "the administration has not satisfactorily answered questions" on verification and missile defense. And she said that entering into a nuclear co-operation agreement with Russia is a mistake. She asserted, "We have no business entering into an agreement with a country that has such a miserable record on proliferation." She argued that "we can't even verify" the extent of Russian proliferation activities.
In fact, she said she is dismayed by the entire approach to Russia: "How many concessions are we going to make?" She noted that she met last week with a high-ranking delegation from Georgia and expressed "my support for standing up to Russian aggression." Does she think we should provide defensive arms to Georgia, a move the Obama administration has refrained from making so as not to upset the Russians? She instantly responded: "Absolutely! It is what they want and what they need. They aren't the aggressors. I don't see why people think that's controversial." Well, those "people" might share the administration's preference for soft-peddling opposition to non-democratic regimes.
As we wrapped up, I asked her about Cuba, a country she fled from as a seven-year-old with her family. She remarked, " I hope this administration understands that freeing prisoners who should never have been incarcerated" is not a sign of progress. She observed that those "released" have been forced into exile. Moreover, she points to the case of Alan Gross, an American "imprisoned for over a year with no charges." She remarked derisively that the Obama administration makes concessions, and the Cuban response is, "OK, we'll jail Alan Ross." She also urged that we reinstitute democracy-promotion programs, so that Cuban activists do not "feel totally isolated and alone."
Ros-Lehtinen is not going to make life easy for the administration. It is not scandal or malfeasance that are likely to be the subject of her committee's work, but, rather true oversight. Are our policies working? Have we gotten anything from our attempts to engage despotic regimes? Unless the Obama administration can show some results, it promises to be a very uncomfortable two years for those who appear before her committee. But, for Georgians, Israelis, Cuban and Russian democracy advocates and others given short shrift by the administration, they now will, finally, have someone asking tough questions. It promises to be both enlightening and entertaining.
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