Not Revising History on Tom Lantos
As I entered the building of the United States Congress one afternoon in early December of last year, I walked through long hallways in the basement of the Capitol to attend a hearing on the Annapolis meeting between Israelis, Palestinians and a number of other countries from the region. Retired Ambassador Edward Peck - the head of the White House Terrorism Task Force during the Reagan administration - was the keynote guest. Other participants included Journalist Dan Lieberman and retired Professor Grace Austin. A staff member as well as the lawyer for the Council for the National Interest foundation in Capitol Hill were also present, an organization that has long promoted America's interests through supporting fair and even-handed policies in the Middle East.
It was a great event, except there was one problem with it. The hearing wasn't organized by Congress. In fact, it was only a counter-hearing to the official House hearing on the matter. The Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee had previously decided that he was not going to ask any current or former State Department officials to speak at the official Congressional hearing on Annapolis. Instead, he had only invited two people to speak at the hearing: Dennis Ross - counselor of the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which is the research arm of American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) - and David Wurmser - a neoconservative who has long been credited as being one of the main authors of the 1996 report Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, which was prepared for then incoming Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The Chairman was made well aware of the fact that both invited witnesses had a consistent record of disproportionately and unconditionally supporting Israel, and that there was a need for at least one State Department official who could have an objective voice in the hearing. Despite hundreds of calls that were made to his office in the run-up to the hearing, he made the point of steadfastly refusing to invite a truly independent expert to speak. The name of the Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee was Representative Tom Lantos.
Tom Lantos passed away on Monday. In light of his death, friends and colleagues have been expressing a great deal of sympathy and have had many nice things to say about him. As an immigrant and survivor of an extremist regime, this blogger admits that Lantos did have one of those truly American stories that stretched from his survival as a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor to immigrating to the United States and electing to the House of Representatives. Furthermore, it is understandable to see the way in which Lantos is viewed in light of the role that the United States played in saving Europe from fascism. In other words, Lantos was seen as a symbol of what America fought for in World War II.
However, as I read obituary after obituary on Tom Lantos's death - including a few on this site - I have noticed that most engage in relentlessly deliberate or unintentional revisionism. We saw this kind of revisionism following the death of Jerry Falwell when most seemed to remember him as a great figure, conveniently forgetting the way in which he had promoted demagoguery and intolerance toward gays and lesbians or those who had a different view of when life begins. Gerald Ford seemed to receive the same kind of treatment when after his death; it was almost as if all the people who had previously been so outraged about his pardoning Richard Nixon had pressed the reset buttons of their memories, remembering nothing but great things about his presidency.
To the extent that those who were personally related or acquainted with Tom Lantos wish to express their view of the kind of person he was in his private life, they are entitled to do it and this blogger would have nothing but respect for those opinions. But when supporters and media personalities alike try to define Tom Lantos in terms of the value of his service in public life, it would be unjust for those of us who disagree to sit back and accept historical revisions.
Since 1981, Lantos spent twenty-seven years representing California's 12th district and Israeli interests as an AIPAC ally in Congress and was one of the strongest supporters of the Iraq War, which as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt eloquently lay out in Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, was not our war to fight, but we got pushed into it by Israel. Lantos may have made the same excuses for voting for the war that Hillary Clinton and others who caved make. However, evidence proves the existence of other motivations on his part. On September 30, 2002, Ha'aretz - the world-known Israeli newspaper - quoted Lantos as having told Minister of Knesset (Israeli legislature) Colette Avital, "My dear Colette, you won't have any problem with Saddam. We'll be rid of the bastard soon enough. And in his place we'll install a pro-Western dictator who will be good for us and for you." This may be why as one former AIPAC leader put it, Lantos "is true blue and white" and Serge Halimi of Le Monde Diplomatique has written that Lantos has acted "as a mouth piece for Likud policies."
Lantos used his status as a holocaust survivor in Congress and an unconditional supporter of Israel to obtain the support of Pro-Israel PACs. In 2004, the 12-term incumbent's power was challenged by Maad Abu-Ghazalah, a Palestinian-born lawyer, and Ro Khanna, a 27-year-old anti-war Indian-American lawyer. Hardly a critic of Israel, Khanna simply held the position that "we have to find a way of articulating a very pro-Israel position that recognizes it as a strong ally and recognizes its security threat, but expresses empathy to the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people," Khanna said. "That's in the best interest of the U.S., in the best interest of Israel and in the best interest of the world."
But as anything short of unconditional support for Israel is unacceptable to the Israel lobby, Pro-Israel PAC funds channeled the total sum of $31,600 in campaign contributions to Lantos (WRMEA). The contribution helped him hold on to his seat despite strong anti-war sentiments in his district. Pro-Israel PACs were quite generous to Lantos over his career, and as of 2006, they contributed $112,750 to his campaigns (WRMEA). While he did not receive as much as the authors of the anti-Iran Kyl-Lieberman Amendment over their lifetimes - Senator Kyl: $163,025, and Senator Lieberman: $286,258 - as of today, Lantos has been the 8th highest receiver of Pro-Israel PACs contributions in the U.S. House of 435 representatives.
Any impartial historian will attest to the fact that since World War II, the United States has pursued an uneven-handed policy in the Middle East, and John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have identified the significant influence of AIPAC and the Israel Lobby in the United States as the cause of this phenomenon. In return, that uneven-handed policy has continually cost the United States allies around the world and thousands of lives throughout terrorist attacks against us or through a war we have been fighting for the past six years. It is fine for friends of Tom Lantos to remember what, this blogger has no doubt, have been pleasant times. But let's not forget that to the extent that America's policy has for the past four decades been to support a foreign state's illegal occupation, home demolitions and settlement building in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, give them one-fifth of our entire foreign aid and veto just about every UN Security Council resolution that's passed against them, Tom Lantos was the embodiment of everything that has been wrong with American foreign policy in the Middle East.
While this writer takes no pleasure in any human being's death, one can also see the end of Lantos's presence in politics as a symbol that reminds us about a new generation of politicians who will have the opportunity of allowing a more objective analysis of the impact of our foreign policy on our standing and moral reputation in the world.