Ros-Lehtinen, now in key foreign policy post, signals she'll challenge
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will chair the Foreign Affairs Committee, the first
South Floridian to head the panel since the days of Dante Fascell.
BY LESLEY CLARK
WASHINGTON -- Promising to play ``hardball'' with ``rogue regimes'' and
press for cuts in foreign aid, Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
moved rapidly Wednesday to put her mark on U.S. foreign policy as the
incoming chair of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee.
On Wednesday, the Havana-born lawmaker officially became the first
Cuban-American to chair a House committee, and the foreign policy hawk
signaled she'll challenge the Obama administration, pressing for tougher
sanctions on U.S. enemies, including Iran and North Korea.
``Rogue regimes never respond to anything less than hardball,'' she
said. ``I pledge to do all that I can to isolate U.S. enemies while
empowering and strengthening our allies, and I will not make apologies
for doing either.''
Ros-Lehtinen, 58, becomes the first South Floridian to lead one of the
nation's key foreign policy posts since the 1980s, when Democrat Dante
Fascell became a national figure in the same post. Fascell used the
position to help win congressional approval for Radio and TV Martí,
supported the Nicaraguan contras and was a chief sponsor of a resolution
authorizing the first Iraq war.
Her ascension -- which likely scuttles any congressional efforts to ease
sanctions against Cuba -- has already prompted saber-rattling from
critics, including Latin America leaders like Fidel Castro. But
Ros-Lehtinen, who will take charge in January, will have more than Latin
America on her plate.
She promised aggressive oversight of U.S. foreign policy, including the
Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as a review of foreign aid with an
eye toward cutting costs.
``I know no State Department official or anyone involved in
international affairs wants to hear that, but that's the sad reality of
our economic state,'' she said in an interview at the Capitol. ``We're
tightening our belts domestically, and we must do so internationally as
For example, she is targeting aid to the U.N. Human Rights Council,
which the Obama administration rejoined after the Bush administration
shunned it. ``They either reform the way they do business or why
contribute our dollars?'' she said.
As for aid to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, Ros-Lehtinen said she's worried
that international donors are getting frustrated.
``In order to help Haiti more we have to show the American taxpayer that
Haiti is going to use those dollars wisely and right now they're
thinking that Haiti may not be as good an investment of their tax
dollars as it should be,'' she said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley sidestepped a question of
whether the agency is worried about potential cuts: ``We look forward to
engaging the new chairwoman of the committee and we think we have a
strong case to make,'' Crowley said. ``We believe that there are
compelling reasons to support the civilian component of a balanced
national security strategy that we think is in the national interest.''
Foreign-policy analysts expect Ros-Lehtinen to pressure the
administration with hearings and investigations, in contrast to Fascell,
who steered away from ideological confrontation and sought to find
common ground with Republican presidents.
Strongly pro-Israel, Ros-Lehtinen has criticized the administration for
pushing Israel to make concessions and supports cutting off funding to
the Palestinian Authority. She favors stepped up sanctions against Iran,
criticized the Obama response to North Korea as ``too weak'' and favors
greater scrutiny of U.S.-Russia policies.
``There's tremendous pressure when the White House is held by the same
party as the House or Senate not to be critical of administration
policy,'' said Randy Scheunemann, a onetime committee staffer who served
as top foreign policy adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential
campaign. ``What this means is the State Department is going to be
spending a lot more time preparing for contentious hearings.''
Ros-Lehtinen said House Speaker John Boehner has asked his committee
chairs to focus on oversight and she plans to be ``aggressive.
``We have not taken it upon ourselves to really look at what has been
going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with what have been the
successes and the failures of our foreign aid budget,'' she said.
Her appointment drew criticism even before it was official: In a
November column, Castro called Ros-Lehtinen ``la loba feroz'' -- the big
bad wolf -- and a ``symbol of hatred of and resentment against Cuba,
Venezuela, Bolivia. . . .''
Venezuela's ambassador to the U.S. wrote a blistering commentary in
Foreign Policy magazine this week, calling Ros-Lehtinen and Fort Myers
Republican Rep. Connie Mack, who will likely chair the committee's
Western Hemisphere subcommittee, ``throwback Latin American cold
warriors, catering to their Cuban-American constituents with belligerent
policies toward any neighboring government that seeks independence from
Ros-Lehtinen met the criticism with cheery nonchalance, tweeting:
``BINGO: 1st Evo Morales slams me, then Chavez calls me bandit + now
Fidel says I'm Loba Feroz. . . .''
Other critics have questioned her suitability for the post, pointing to
an episode in 2006 in which Ros-Lehtinen appeared to suggest in a video
that she'd welcome Fidel Castro's assassination.
``If I don't have critics then I'm not doing my job as well as I could
be,'' she said Wednesday. ``I make no apologies for being a person who
stands up for human rights and freedom and democracy.''
And Ros-Lehtinen, who has not been afraid to buck the GOP on issues --
she supports repeal of the ban on gays serving in the military -- said
she will push for a nonpartisan approach to the committee. ``I'm not
saying they're overjoyed that Republicans have taken over Congress,''
she said of the administration. ``But they understand that foreign
policy should be a bipartisan and a nonpartisan agenda item and I hope
that it will be.''
Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who has been on the committee
since Ros-Lehtinen arrived in 1989, said that while he'd rather see
Democrats retain control of the House, ``if I had to pick a Republican
to chair the committee, it would be Ily. ``In this day and age where
collegiality seems to diminish and diminish by the day, I think with
Ileana it will be enhanced,'' he said. ``She has her strong views and
she will press, but she'll also give members a chance to speak their
minds and be heard.''