That this resourceful businessman is now enmeshed in the unfamiliar world of international politics is less the work of design than fate. He came ready to lend his expertise to his country, was denied a seat on the prestigious Commerce Committee, and sat on International Relations in relative obscurity. Until that terrible Tuesday.
Like most politicians, Issa is driven by a desire to be noticed on the world stage, a pipedream for a freshman congressman from San Diego County. But 9/11 gave him the opportunity and his surname gave him the access. Now, one year later, he is engaged in international diplomacy at the highest levels--not the knee-jerk conservative some expected, nor the down-the-line party loyalist Republican House leaders were counting on. Challenging the GOP's long-standing fidelity to Israel, Issa suggests his party is "playing to a single-minded attempt to move Jewish voters over to the Republican column." An ultra-conservative Internet columnist has dubbed him "Jihad Darrell."
While some activists think he's too quick to compromise, many experts see in Issa a maturing politician who foregoes grandstanding for incremental progress. "He's not so much bold as responsible," says George Cody, executive director of the American Task Force For Lebanon. "He raises the right questions at committee hearings. He doesn't speak to the Arab side or the Israeli side ... But I don't think he holds his finger to the wind or follows his leadership lock, stock and barrel. For that he deserves credit."
But Issa also is a novice, with a reputation for brashness and poorly chosen words. He once called then-President Clinton "a slut." He comes out with phrases such as, "A lot of my best friends are Jewish," although the proclamation seems more a point of pride than veiled intolerance. He admits his religious history is less likely to come from the Torah than the "Old Testament for Dummies." But many leaders in the Arab American community appreciate Issa's knowledge of the region and its culture, which enables him to move easily in a sometimes misunderstood world.
"The stars are aligned for peace," Issa insists, noting that all of the Arab League states agreed at the Beirut summit in March to Israel's existence along pre-1967 war borders, a massive shift in mind-set for states that spent more than 50 years challenging Israel's right to exist. He knows people say he's naive, particularly in light of the recent violence, but he believes peace is inevitable. After all, the Hundred Years' War ended, even if it took 100 years.
So he presses his colleagues to reject proposed sanctions against states such as Syria and the PLO, and build on progress with more dialogue. He recently spent two hours drinking tea with Syria's Assad, and handed him a personal letter urging a more progressive course than his late father's. The new president read the letter, folded it carefully and put it in his pocket.
In the vast diplomatic machinery struggling to settle the conflict, Issa's role is relatively small, yet not without some political risk. Congress' heart belongs to Israel, and those who defend the Arab view risk the wrath of a powerful Jewish lobby. Rep. Earl F. Hilliard, a five-term Democrat, lost his Alabama primary in a June runoff after Jewish supporters threw their votes to an opponent they perceived to be more sympathetic to Israel. Fellow incumbent Democrat Cynthia McKinney, who faced a similarly tough challenge in Georgia in August, was virtually the only lawmaker spotted at a recent pro-Palestinian rally in Washington, while a demonstration for Israel drew a parade of congressional stars.
Issa's solidly Republican San Diego-area district--with no significant Arab American constituency--gives him job security as long as he pays attention to local issues. (Indeed, it was a meeting with some of the Southern California developers who nurtured him politically that made him late for the Egyptian embassy bash.) But if he aspires to another run for Senate--which many deem likely--his credentials as Congress' "go-to Arab" can only harm him in a match against incumbent Barbara Boxer--a Jewish Democrat.
"Everything I've done on this issue is counter to being a good thing to do if you simply want to be politically popular," Issa concedes. "There are rules here: Take a trip to Israel and put your hand on the Wailing Wall, don't take any new positions and don't try to move the debate. Anyone will tell you that."
So why do it? Some people say it's ego--he needs to be a player and thinks he has ideas. Who else would spend a record $9 million of his own money on a pie-in-the-sky run for the U.S. Senate? Maybe it's a sense of duty--access and opportunity fell into his lap and shame on anyone who fails to seize it.
Or maybe it's like the photocopier. It's sitting there broken and no one else seems to be able to fix it.