Tom Lantos, a Democrat who has represented San
Mateo in the U.S. House of Representatives for 13 terms, plans to run for reelection
in 2008. Budapest-born Lantos, who came to the United States as a young man,
may face a primary challenge from popular former state Sen. Jackie Speier. Reports
indicate that Speier, who has yet to announce her candidacy, has in-house polls
showing her leading Congressman Lantos in the 12th District two to one. Beating
a politician of Lantos' stature would catapult Speier to immediate national
One wonders why Tom Lantos has suddenly become so vulnerable. Is Lantos, who
will turn 80 early next year, beginning to show his age? He recently snapped
at visiting Dutch parliamentarians and articulated a rather peculiar view of
European history: "Europe was not as outraged by Auschwitz as by Guantanamo
Bay," and "You have to help us [in Afghanistan], because if it was not
for us you would now be a province of Nazi Germany." The congressman seems to
have forgotten that the American liberation of the Netherlands was not an act
of altruism. The U.S. did not fight Nazi Germany because the Wehrmacht had
overrun the Netherlands but because Germany declared war on the United States.
As for the Auschwitz-Guantanamo comparison, surely the congressman knows that
to protest in Nazi-occupied Europe would have achieved nothing except a quick
death, and, in any event, few people knew about the Auschwitz death camp until
after the allies had defeated Hitler.
Twelfth District residents may be fed up with Lantos' support for the wars
of the Bush family. During the run-up to Gulf War I, George Bush Sr.'s 1991
campaign to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Lantos played a key but deceitful
role in convincing Congress and the American people that war was necessary.
In October 1990, as co-chairman of the of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus,
an organization masquerading as part of the U.S. government that is simply a
collection of like-minded politicians, Lantos hosted a Capitol Hill meeting
to hear an emotional statement from a 15-year-old Kuwaiti nurse. Lantos' witness
was identified only as "Nayirah," supposedly to protect her family
from Iraqi reprisals in occupied Kuwait. Nayirah tearfully testified that she
had been a volunteer at the al-Addan hospital in Kuwait City during the Iraqi
invasion and that she "saw Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital and into
the room where … babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the
incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die."
In the three months before the start of U.S. lead military effort to drive
Saddam out of Kuwait, Nayirah's story was told repeatedly by the president and
members of Congress, in the media and at the UN, to justify war against Iraq.
Many in Congress questioned the wisdom of shedding American blood to restore
the feudal and corrupt al-Sabah dynasty to power. The resolution to use force
to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait passed the Senate 52-47. Was Nayirah's tale
instrumental in the decision to go to war? We shall never know, but what we
do know is the whole story was a complete and utter fabrication. Nayirah was
nowhere near Kuwait at the time of the invasion, and she is a member of the
ruling al-Sabah family, the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S. to
"Nurse" Nayirah's appearance was a shameless hoax orchestrated by
the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm, aided and abetted by the Congressional
Human Rights Caucus. H & K was acting on behalf of its client, Citizens
for a Free Kuwait, a front for the al-Sabah family, which contributed 99 percent
of its budget of $12 million. Interestingly enough, Hill & Knowlton also
had a close relationship with Tom Lantos and provided free office space to another
of the unofficial congressional organizations Lantos chairs, the Congressional
Human Rights Forum. Did Congressman Lantos know the throw-the babies-on-the-floor
story was complete rubbish before Nayirah's appearance? Well, you decide.
Not surprisingly, Tom Lantos was also a strong supporter of the 2003 invasion
of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Lantos even suggested an American
failure to attack Saddam would be equivalent to the European appeasement of
Hitler during the 1930s. Casting Saddam the new Hitler as a way to whip up enthusiasm
for regime change in Baghdad was a rhetorical device by no means limited to
Lantos. But since Lantos actually lived through World War II in Hungary, which
was at first allied with the Nazis and then occupied by them, one would think
he could distinguish between a third-world dictator with a fourth-class military
and a world power with an industrial base and first-class military establishment.
To equate Nazi Germany with Ba'athist Iraq is the height of absurdity.
Like many members of Congress, Lantos willingly accepted flawed and fraudulent
intelligence about Iraq's nonexistent weapons programs, even though many of
the administration's claims were demonstrably bogus even before the war began.
And during the October 2002 debate on the resolution to authorize President
Bush to invade Iraq, Lantos argued, "We cannot be content to see Saddamism
without Saddam. A democratic Iraq surely would change the Middle East's strategic
calculus, and would send a powerful message of deep hope to Arabs throughout
the region living currently under all totalitarian regimes."
While Lantos was speaking publicly about the need to bring democracy to Iraq,
in private his opinion was very different. Lantos told a visiting member of
Israel's Knesset, 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." When Lantos'
comments appeared in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, he dismissed them
as a "total fabrication," adding, "I am amused by the comments attributed to
me, because they fly in the face of my lifetime of work. I am a firm supporter
of democracy." Avital, nevertheless, stated for the record, "I can confirm that
the story is accurate. In fact, I myself was surprised and pained by Congressman
Lantos' comments. Since he is a friend of Israel and I have had a long friendship
with him, I did not want to react to his denial."
Knesset Member Avital's observation that Lantos is "a friend of Israel"
is perhaps an understatement. Lantos has visited Israel 68 times, making one
wonder whether his constituency is in San Mateo or Tel Aviv. Given the rumbles
of discontent emanating from his constituents in the 12th District, they must
be wondering the same thing. Lantos doesn't visit his district as often as many
of his supporters would like, and help for his constituents from his Washington
office is said to be below par.
That Lantos has worked indefatigably throughout his congressional career to
support Israel is a statement one doubts the congressman would dispute. But
do the folks in his district really know what he has been up to? For example,
during the Hezbollah-Israeli war in the summer of 2006 Lantos co-sponsored a
resolution unconditionally supporting Israel's military actions in Lebanon and
praising Israel's "long-standing commitment to minimize civilian loss"
and "continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties." These assertions
could, of course, come straight out of Orwell's 1984. From Israel's 1982
invasion, in which 20,000 Lebanese lost their lives, to the Israeli shelling
of the UN post at Qana in 1996, in which over a hundred Lebanese civilians died
in a single Israeli artillery barrage, to the 2006 summer war, Israel has never
had the slightest compunction about killing Lebanese civilians. Even as Lantos
was crafting his resolution, Israel was pounding Lebanon's civilian infrastructure.
Before the end of the war, Israel would seed southern Lebanon's villages and
fields with millions of cluster bomblets. And after the cease-fire, Lantos led
a campaign against U.S. aid to Lebanon earmarked for the repair of bridges,
roads, airports, homes, and public buildings damaged or destroyed during the
Lantos has spearheaded legislation against nations hostile to Israel, especially
Syria and Iran, whose cooperation could be quite helpful in extracting Uncle
Sam from the Iraq fiasco, a titanic mess for which Lantos is in part responsible.
His uncritical championing of a rich and powerful Israel against the weak, divided,
and long-suffering Palestinians makes him look heartless. For example, in 2003
Lantos prepared a letter, signed by most House Democrats, denouncing the so-called
"Road Map" to peace as not being tough enough on the Palestinians.
In particular, he faulted the Bush administration for not demanding new Palestinian
leadership and a total end to Palestinian resistance. Lantos made no mention
of the obligations the Road Map placed on Israel, most importantly suspending
settlement construction, nor of any of the other measures Israel routinely takes
against the Palestinians: sieges, road blocks, assassinations, curfews, and
land confiscations, which all work to make the emergence of a viable Palestinian
state impossible and the daily lives of the Palestinians unmitigated hell.
Other legislation Lantos has cosponsored includes an attack on the International
Court of Justice for ruling that the separation wall, which juts deeply into
the West Bank and cuts many Palestinian farmers off from their lands, is illegal.
Another Lantos resolution worth mentioning congratulates Israel on the 40h anniversary
of the "reunification" of Jerusalem, although Jerusalem's Palestinian
residents, who find it increasingly difficult to maintain contact with friends
and family on the West Bank, hardly view the Israeli capture and continuing
occupation of their neighborhoods in such a positive light.
The election of a Hamas majority to the Palestinian legislature in 2006 led
Lantos to support draconian measures against the Palestinians. The self-proclaimed
champion of democracy became much less supportive of the process when the results
were not to his liking. Lantos voiced his support for a PLO coup against the
democratically elected Palestinian government when he stated before his Foreign
Affairs Committee, "I am very cautiously encouraged by the decision of
Palestinian Authority President Abbas to put an end to the Hamas government
and to install in its place a government led by former World Bank official Salaam
Fayyad…." Today as supplies of food, fuel, and medicine dwindle in Gaza,
whose population of 1.4 million Israel seems intent on strangling, Tom Lantos
Two episodes make Lantos look downright racist. The first is Lantos' acceptance
of the Tree of Life award from the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The JNF exists
to purchase land in Israel. When the JNF talks about reclaiming land in Israel,
most people conjure up visions of swamps being drained or hillsides being planted.
Reclaiming land in JNF parlance means something entirely different; it means
administering land according to JNF rules, which preclude Muslim or Christian
residents of Israel from using or occupying the land in any way.
The second is Lantos' refusal to reject the outrageous views of Israeli Deputy
Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman has said a number of quite bizarre
things. He once called for the bombing of the Aswan High Dam to punish Egypt
for supporting Yasser Arafat. Most notoriously, Lieberman openly advocates expelling
1.2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel: "They are not wanted here.
They can take the bundles and go to Hell!" Although challenged to confront
Lieberman, Lantos chose not to do so, an omission consistent with his unwillingness
to criticize anything Israeli, least of all Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
Would challenger Speier be as supportive of Israel as Lantos has been? Yes,
but she would be unlikely to back further American adventurism in the Middle
East and might push for a fair settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.