The Other Side of the Activist Equation

by Zachary Abrahamson and Alexander Soble:

In November 2006, the Democrats won a series of congressional elections across the country, giving them a commanding majority in both houses of the U.S. Congress. Given the Democrats’ newfound position to shape American foreign policy, the Globalist spoke with two prominent Democratic congressmen to explore the other side of the activist equation: how do elected officials respond to activism?

Representative Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California’s 12th district, entered Congress in 1981. A Hungarian immigrant and Congress’ lone Holocaust survivor, Lantos has exerted a powerful influence on foreign policy during his 27 years in the House. After the 2006 election, he replaced Henry Hyde (R-RI) as Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. A longtime advocate for countering human rights abuses abroad, Lantos has much experience working with activist groups promoting international causes.

Representative Tom Lantos (D-California)

The Yale Globalist (YG): How would you describe your relationship with advocacy groups in Washington?

Congressman Tom Lantos (TL): We have a mutually beneficial relationship. I work very closely with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other groups, and the information they provide serves as an important supplement to official government sources. NGOs provide invaluable expertise on the ground for human rights issues, and they are an important part of how Congress receives information.

YG: In your opinion, what distinguishes an effective advocacy group from an ineffective advocacy group?

TL: There is a very clear distinction between effective and ineffective advocacy groups, and that rests in the credibility and quality of their information. There is always a danger that groups will manipulate data, either intentionally or out of a desire to push Congress towards action with eyecatching numbers or anecdotes. Stretching the truth to suit a legislative aim puts a group’s credibility at risk.

YG: How have advocacy groups helped or hindered the cause of human rights?

TL: In every human rights success story, the imprint of an NGO or advocacy group can be found. But our efforts to advance human rights become infinitely more difficult when advocacy groups engage in territorial battles with one another, arguing over who gets the credit instead of collaborating. Their message becomes diluted, and the process can be brought to a standstill.

YG: When they conflict over the issues of foreign affairs, how do you balance the competing interests of your constituents in the California 12th and those of international advocacy groups?

TL: The pursuit and protection of human rights has been the guiding principle in both my personal and political life. The people of the 12th District provide my office there with constant positive feedback in response to my human rights work. They are very supportive and expect that I will continue to make human rights a priority in my Congressional business. Furthermore, many advocacy groups have members and leaders in my district, and I meet with them as frequently as I can.

YG: How will your chairmanship and the new Democratic Congress influence the direction of foreign policy legislation?

TL: The Foreign Affairs Committee is already deeply engaged in the crucial issues that face our country. Only a few weeks into the new Congress, we have already conducted substantive hearings on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea with the leading experts in these fields.

We must launch a long-overdue reinvigoration of U.S. foreign policy oversight and bring new accountability to the process. I will also place a heavy focus on reversing the severe loss to America’s international prestige in recent years, improving international cooperation and reinstating our role as a lodestar of democratic values and human rights.

Representative Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California’s 27th district, was elected to Congress in 1996. He also serves on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, where he is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade. Sherman spoke to the Globalist about the efficacy of activist and advocacy groups in Washington.

Representative Brad Sherman (D-California)

YG: In your opinion, what are the most important factors shaping foreign policy?

Congressman Brad Sherman (BS): The most powerful force in Washington is inertia. If you take a look at our policies, they usually consist of hardworking people doing the same things they were doing ten years ago.

YG: Can groups of citizens change that inertia?

BS: It’s worth trying.

YG: Is it happening?

BS: Certainly, groups have effects on certain policy. The anti-Fidel folks have been particularly well organized, as well as the pro-Israel community. But when you’re talking about activism, it’s easier to focus on those Americans who hate Fidel because Cuba is literally an island—our policy towards Cuba doesn’t directly relate to much else, unless you want to talk about Chavez. But if you try to ask what our policy towards the Middle East would be if there was no Israel lobby, you have to consider terrorism, oil, extremism—and it might just be that our policy would be the same without domestic pressure.

YG: Which of these lobbies have you found to be the strongest?

BS: Just about every group’s effectiveness is proportional to its budget. Poundfor- pound, dollar for dollar, those trying to influence our stance on the Turkey-Cyprus issue aren’t any stronger than the anti-Fidel lobby.

YG: But doesn’t the moral or political force of an advocacy group’s stance matter?

BS: Well, if a lobbyist is lobbying in favor of Russia taking back control of Eastern Europe or awarding Omar Al-Bashir [the President of Sudan] the Medal of Freedom, he clearly won’t get what he wants. But, yes, if you’re trying to affect American policy, what matters is both the strength of your moral case and whether you can get reporters to care about your moral case.

There have been more deaths in the Congo than in Sudan, yet far less press coverage. Similarly, the Israel-Palestine issue gets far more press than Darfur, even though ten times fewer have died—even one casualty in that conflict is news. Personally, I think it’s because the Middle East is the only conflict zone you can cover at a five star hotel. You can stay at the King David, drive down to Ramallah, and head back when you’re done.

If there’s a single most powerful group when it comes to foreign policy, it’s the press. What they cover is idiosyncratic. It’s almost fashion—why is blue the color for ties this year? For instance, far more intense than the Israel-Palestine conflict is the goings- on in the northern Jaffna Peninsula of Sri Lanka. But you might not even have heard of the Jaffna Peninsula, because the press doesn’t cover it. If you want to influence American foreign policy and only have $99, take a reporter to dinner, not a politician. It’ll be cheaper—the reporter won’t order the lobster.

YG: In your opinion, then, what are the most important foreign policy issues that the Congress should be focusing on today?

BS: Nuclear proliferation. Period. Our biggest failures over the last two years have been, in order, Iran, North Korea, and Iraq. Iran has made two more years of progress on acquiring nuclear weapons, North Korea is getting there, and Iraq, well, a catastrosomething— what does Jon Stewart call it?-—it’s a mess.

YG: Have there been any bright spots worth mentioning?

BS: Hmm. Successes of American foreign policy in last two years? I would say that relations between us and Holland are very strong. We haven’t bombed Rotterdam.

YG: Do you think that there’s major progress to be made with a Democratic Congress?

BS: Well, we certainly don’t have Democratic leadership—you wage foreign policy with the president you have, not the president you wish you had. Perhaps we’ll see some amelioration of our recent failures, but no, I’m essentially a pessimist on Iran, North Korea, and Iraq.