Is Tom Lantos’ Seat in Jeopardy?

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 standing.

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 be precise.

"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 Israeli bombardment.

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 says nothing.

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.

Author: John Taylor

John Taylor received an A.B. in Near Eastern languages from the University of Chicago, a B.A. and an M.A. in Oriental studies from Cambridge University, and an MBA from Columbia University. He served two years active duty in the United States Army, reaching the grade of sergeant, and spent six years in the reserves. Before making his career in the oil and gas business in Texas, he worked in the Middle East as an archaeologist, banker, and civil servant. Taylor is a life-long Republican.