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Keen eye on foreign policy

Rep. Lantos says the mistakes in Iraq drive his agenda for change.

March 21, 2007|Adam Schreck | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Outside Rep. Tom Lantos' office, two American flags -- not just one -- stand guard. Inside, though, it looks like a homey sitting room that would not be out of place in the heart of Europe.

A coffee table heavy with family portraits and snapshots with statesmen substitutes for a desk. Bookshelves, one with a blue-and-white menorah on top, line the walls. Images of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis, are everywhere.

San Mateo Democrat Lantos also helped save lives as part of the anti-Nazi underground in Budapest, Hungary, and likes to describe himself as an "American by choice."

And his patriotism is unabashed.

"Every time I see an American flag," he said, "my heart flutters."

Lantos, who arrived from Hungary in 1947, sees the United States as a guarantor of freedom and a beacon of democracy. But he believes the war in Iraq has squandered that reputation.

Now, as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he intends to stiffen oversight of U.S. foreign policy and change the way America conducts itself around the world. On Tuesday he took the unusual step of giving the sponsors of more than 30 bills on Iraq the chance to make their case, and he introduced a bill to streamline Iraq reconstruction.

"It's a role he has looked forward to for a long time, and he's fulfilling it very well," said Madeline Albright, a friend and former Secretary of State under President Clinton.

In a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office, Lantos explained why he had shifted from being a supporter of the war to a leading critic.

"It starts with the totally misleading and flawed intelligence we were provided with," the 79-year-old lawmaker said.

He cited the "arrogant dismissal" of the need for more troops after the fall of Baghdad and the poorly guarded ammunition dumps he saw in a 2003 helicopter flight over Mosul. Then there was the disbanding of the Iraqi army and "the incredible lack of awareness" of the complex ethnic makeup of Iraqi society.

Then he paused.

"As in one's personal life," he reflected, "you cannot go back 28 years, or eight years, or eight months and say, 'I should have taken the other road or I should have done things differently.' "

Nonetheless, as Lantos surveys the world these days, he feels compelled to do what he can to repair the "calamitous decline in the standing of the United States."

The No. 1 task for the next president, he said, "will be to begin the painful, tedious, time-consuming, difficult, uphill process of telling again to the world that not only are we a decent society, but we are the indispensable nation."

That view was shaped in part by what he saw during World War II, when he risked his life to deliver food and medicine to Jews hiding in Budapest safe houses. He was caught and put in a forced labor camp, but escaped. His mother and other family members did not survive.

Lantos came to the United States on a scholarship and earned a doctorate. He became a citizen in 1952 and taught economics for three decades at San Francisco State University.

While he maintains close ties to Hungary, "he's an American first, he's an American second and he's an American third," said Andras Simonyi, the Hungarian ambassador. "Everything else comes after that."

Lantos married his childhood sweetheart, Annette Tillemann, a first cousin of Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor. They have 17 grandchildren from two daughters, one of whom is running for U.S. Senate.

Since 1981, Lantos has represented the heavily Democratic 12th District -- which stretches from west-central San Francisco down the peninsula -- and is "electorally untouchable," said Andrew Byrnes of the San Mateo County Democratic Party.

Lantos' more vocal critics complain he's not liberal enough; many were angered by his early support of the Iraq invasion. "He was way too much of a hawk on the war," said Robert Barrows, a Democrat who challenged Lantos in the 2006 primary.

But Robert Smith, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, said Lantos' views were largely in line with those of his constituents.

"He's a typical Bay Area liberal, except for some aspects of foreign policy," he said. "He takes a harder line on radical regimes."

As Congress' only Holocaust survivor, Lantos is a passionate human rights advocate who co-founded the bipartisan Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Last year, he was arrested during a protest in support of Darfur outside the Sudanese embassy.

He is seen as one of Congress' staunchest supporters of Israel, and has introduced a bill to tighten sanctions on Iran.

And he also is a firm believer in talking to your adversaries. In 2004 he became the first U.S. official in decades to meet with Libya's Moammar Kadafi, who is no longer hostile to the U.S.

Lantos "has a nice combination of strong ideals and a readiness to work hard to achieve realistic outcomes," said George P. Shultz, secretary of State under President Reagan.

During debate last month in support of a resolution he co-wrote opposing President Bush's plans to send more troops to Iraq, Lantos ad-libbed: "We are attempting to referee a religiously based civil war which saps our strength and destroys our fabric as a society."

The next day, a policeman approached him in the Capitol.

"I know we're not supposed to do this, sir," the officer said a little sheepishly, "but I just wanted to say thank you for your words on the House floor about Iraq."

Lantos turned to his staff, a sparkle in his eye. "That's the ultimate payoff," he said.


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