Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives who has represented Florida's 18th congressional district since 1989. A foreign-policy hawk, Ros-Lehtinen has been a leading Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to which she has been elected as chair on various occasions, most recently after the Republican take over of the House in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections. From this perch, Ros-Lehtinen has attacked the United Nations, pushed a hardline "pro-Israel" Mideast agenda, and promoted get-tough policies with Latin American countries like Venezuela and Cuba.
A February 2011 Reuters exposé on Ros-Lehtinen reported: "A Cuban-American, Ros-Lehtinen has called former Cuban President Fidel Castro a 'dinosaur' and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a 'thugocrat.' Sometimes she gets as good as she gives; Castro calls her 'the ferocious she-wolf' and Chavez has dubbed her an 'outlaw.' Her critics pillory Ros-Lehtinen as a right-wing extremist. Her outspokenness surely irks the Obama administration as it conducts global diplomacy, trying to reset relations with Russia, expand trade with China, relax U.S. policy on Cuba and get Egypt's government to do the right thing. But her admirers find Ros-Lehtinen a breath of fresh air. 'In a city where compromise and nuance is often the order of the day, it's refreshing to have someone who will speak their mind, and who will do it based on a set of values that are very American and very honorable,' said Helle Dale, senior fellow for public diplomacy" at the rightwing Heritage Foundation.
Ros-Lehtinenhas proved to be one of the House's more diehard "pro-Israel" hawks. Wrote Ian Williams in a 2011 article for Foreign Policy in Focus: "Ros-Lehtinen actually takes positions that are often worse than those of the Israeli government. One of her donors is Irving Moskowitz, the gambling magnate who finances settlements in East Jerusalem, and she has called for the United States to defund the UN's Palestinian refugee agency, which successive Israeli governments have appreciated because, in effect, it has shifted much of the financial burden in the Occupied Territories to the international community."
When the Obama administration allowed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to hoist the Palestinian flag outside its Washington, D.C. office for the first time, Ros-Lehtinen objected. "Raising this flag in [the District of Columbia] is part of the Palestinian leadership's scheme to manipulate international acceptance and diplomatic recognition of a yet-to-be-created Palestinian state while refusing to directly negotiate with Israel or accept the existence of Israel as a democratic, Jewish state." She went on to condemn the Palestinian Authority's proposed Security Council resolution in 2011 reaffirming the illegality of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories as "part of the same strategy aimed at extracting concessions without being required to meet international commitments."
After Israeli commandos attacked a Palestinian aid convoy in 2010 killing several activists, Ros-Lehtinen pushed back against criticism of Israel by trying to paint the aid caravan as a purveyor of terrorism: "Israeli soldiers had every right to defend their lives against a lynch mob attacking them with knives and clubs."
Ros-Lehtinen has been supportive of rightist groups that make up the "Israel Lobby." For instance, the website of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), led by Clarion Fund advisor Sarah Stern, quotes Ros-Lehtinen as saying, "I am writing in strong support of Sarah Stern, who has worked with my office on matters of legislative importance. I praise her efforts in establishing the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East policy think tank, EMET. … Sarah's understanding of the Middle East region and the challenges for peace lend themselves well to her endeavors to produce assessments that will be valuable as events unfold. I enthusiastically endorse Sarah Stern's effort and look forward to EMET's success."
Shortly after taking over as head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee after the 2010 midterms, Ros-Lehtinen announced she would try to cut back U.S. funding for the United Nations and push legislation that "conditions our contributions … on real, sweeping reform, including moving the UN regular budget to a voluntary funding basis. That way, U.S. taxpayers can pay for the UN programs and activities that advance our interests and values, and if other countries want different things to be funded, they can pay for it themselves."
Commented one observer, "In reality, most of the $6 billion she cites goes to peacekeeping operations supported and indeed proposed by the United States, and only the tiniest proportion goes to any items that the United States has opposed."
New Axis of Evil
Ros-Lehtinen has long promoted fear-mongering stories regarding relations between Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran. Paralleling efforts by pundits like Roger Noriega of the American Enterprise Institute, Ros-Lehtinen has argued that an "axis" is developing in Latin America that threatens U.S. security and raises the specter of nuclear deals between Venezuela and Iran. In her September 2009 comments before the House Committee on Foreign Relations, she warned:
"Iran's Ahmadinejad has had a receptive audience in Chavez who has been willing to work hand-in-hand with Tehran on everything from joint banking schemes, to oil and gas ventures, to military and security agreements, to technological partnerships. Chavez is reportedly selling uranium to the Iranian regime for use in Iran's nuclear program. Iran's Banco Internacional de Desarrollo, sanctioned by the U.S. for aiding Iranian agencies involved in Iran's nuclear proliferation, is also conducting business in Venezuela. In April of this year, Iran and Venezuela signed a defense pact in which Iran pledged to promote Venezuela's defense capabilities. Lest we forget, though, Chavez is merely following the model first set-up by the Cuban dictatorship which has a joint bio-technology venture with the Iranian regime—a regime with a reported bioweapons program. News reports this week state that Ecuador's Rafael Correa has agreed to host a branch of Iran's Export Development Bank. Nicaragua now has an Iranian diplomatic mission in Managua. U.S. intelligence officials emphasize that Iran uses its embassies to smuggle in weapons and to develop and execute its deadly plans. This growing axis brings the Iranian threat closer to the U.S. and directly undermines our critical security interests. Where is the sense of urgency from U.S. officials in countering this threat?"
Ros-Lehtinen's fondness for the "axis" motif extends to the Middle East. In her March 2011 remarks to the House Foreign Relations Committee regarding the tumult in the Greater Middle East, she argued:
"In Lebanon, we have witnessed the conquest of the country by the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. The U.S. should never have been supporting a government with Hezbollah. Now, with Hezbollah in control, what is the justification for continued U.S. taxpayer investment? In Egypt and elsewhere, successive U.S. administrations failed to move beyond the status quo and prepare for the future. We should not associate the protest in Jordan and Bahrain with events transpiring in Tripoli, Cairo and Beirut. But there is one constant. We have failed to effectively use our resources to help build strong, accountable institutions that protect basic human rights. … In our hemisphere, the U.S. approach is one of misplaced priorities. The Havana tyranny has again ramped up its assault against a democracy movement in Cuba, detaining dozens of peaceful protesters, beating mourning mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, and this weekend sending its shameless thugs after the Ladies in White. Yet, the administration has repeatedly eased regulations on the Castro regime."
After the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt, Ros-Lehtinen led efforts to get the United States to marginalize the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, pushing alarmist notions about the group. "We must urge the unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists who may seek to exploit and hijack these events to gain power, oppress the Egyptian people, and do great harm to Egypt's relationship with the United State, Israel, and other free nations," she said in a statement.
Regime Change in Iran
Ros-Lehtinen has long championed regime-change policies on Iran. In 2006, she sponsored the Iran Freedom Support Act, which tightened sanctions initially imposed on Iran under the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) of 1996 and tightens and aimed to make U.S. sanctions against Iran under ILSA permanent unless there is a change of government in Iran. The bill also authorized the president "to provide financial and political assistance to foreign and domestic individuals, organizations, and entities that support democracy and the promotion of democracy in Iran."
Ros-Lehtinen has supported the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian exile group that—despite its listing by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group—has received support from several rightwing groups in the United States, including the Iran Policy Committee. In 2003, Ros-Lehtinen released a letter in support for the MEK that she said had the backing of 150 colleagues, whom she repeatedly refused to identify. "Because of the [Iranian President Mohammed] Khatami well-funded campaign on propaganda, lies, and misinformation, I have decided not to release the names of these signers." At that time, she contended MEK could be "one of the leading groups in establishing secular government in Iran."
In 2010, she spoke out in support of a campaign led members of Congress, administration officials, and rightist Iran "experts" to remove the MEK from that list. "The problem is not that a tough approach [to Iran] has failed," she said, "but that it has yet to be fully tried."
Ros-Lehtinen has also been a hawk on North Korea. After President George W. Bush changed course during his second term and decided to join negotiations aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program, Ros-Lehtinen joined a chorus of hardliners like John Bolton and Elliott Abrams in condemning the decision. She complained, "In rewarding North Korea this way, we risk abandoning true and steadfast allies like Japan and we send a message to the regimes in Damascus and Tehran that the United States will endorse a reckless disregard of our own interests."
Following North Korea's attack on a South Korean island in November 2010, she stated: "As North Korea has ratcheted up its aggression over the past two years, I am concerned that the U.S. response has been too weak. This may have led Pyongyang to calculate that it can get away with even more. The U.S. must move to immediately re-list North Korea as a state-sponsor of terrorism and call on all responsible nations to adopt tough new sanctions on the North Korea regime."