Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives who represents Florida's 27th congressional district. A foreign-policy hawk, Ros-Lehtinen has been a leading Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which she chaired from 2011 to when her term-limit expired in 2013. She subsequently returned to her previous post of chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa. Ros-Lehtinen has used her positions in the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Subcommittee to attack the United Nations, push a hardline "pro-Israel" Mideast agenda, and promote 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 Heritage Foundation."
In June 2015, Ros-Lehtinen endorsed former Florida Governor Jeb Bush for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. In announcing her support for Bush, she stressed the difficultly she had choosing between Bush and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. "I prefer Jeb because of his experience. Jeb was my first campaign architect for my first race, he was the campaign chairman. And Marco was one of my first interns when I got to Congress. It's a difficult choice, I love them both, but I love Jeb a little bit more," she proclaimed.
Ros-Lehtinen has a history of pushing aggressive U.S. policies in Latin America. She was a stern advocate of Orlando Bosch, a former CIA-backed operative who was accused of playing a role in the 1976 bombing of Cuban civilian airliner in which 73 people were killed. During her first run for Congress in 1989, Ros-Lehtinen made releasing Bosch from prison one of the key issues of her campaign. Ros-Lehtinen has also openly called for the assassination of former Cuban president Fidel Castro, saying in 2006: "I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro."
Ros-Lehtinen strongly criticized President Obama's December 2014 announcement that the United States will seek to normalize its ties with Cuba. Decrying the overture as "immoral" and "illegal", she said in Washington Times article that it "undermined the national security of the United States" and that "it is now the role of the legislative branch to oppose this overreach of executive action."
In April 2015, Ros-Lehtinen drafted legislation to scuttle the Obama administration's efforts at rapprochement with Cuba. Her bill won 35 co-sponsors in the House of Representative but ultimately failed, in part because of legal constraints on legislative branch interference on certain types of executive foreign policy acts.
Ros-Lehtinen blasted Secretary of State John Kerry's August 2015 trip to Cuba inaugurating the re-opening of the U.S. embassy there as being a part of his "global capitulation tour." She also claimed the embassy opening was "another example of the Obama administration's desire to pursue deals at any cost."
In May 2014, Ros-Lehtinen introduced the "Venezuelan Human Rights and Democracy Protection Act" in the House. The bill, which authorized President Obama to impose sanctions against current and former Venezuelan government officials accused of human rights abuses, was passed by both chambers of Congress in early December 2014 and then signed into law by President Obama.
The Mercosur trading bloc, which represents a large part of Latin America, rushed to condemn the sanctions. A statement by Mercosur presidents read: "The application of unilateral sanctions, like those provided under the bill, violates the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other States, and does not contribute to stability, social peace, and democracy in Venezuela."
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 also used her perch as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwomen to withhold U.S. funds to the Palestinian Authority. In 2011, her intransigence on allowing funds to go through to the Palestinian Authority led to a rare display of executive-branch power, in which then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over-ruled Ros-Lehtinen's hold and told Congress she would move forward with a $147 million aid-package to the Palestinian Authority.
After it was announced in 2014 that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas would seek to form a coalition government, Ros-Lehtinen reiterated her call for a suspension of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority.
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 was a vociferous critic of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations and denounced the comprehensive agreement reached in July 2015. While the talks were on-going, she argued for greater congressional intervention, which many analysts argued would have scuttled the entire negotiating process. "Let me be clear," she said in November 2014, "no matter what the P5+1 does, Congress should not allow a deal that threatens our national security interests to stand, and we intend on repairing the damage that has been done as soon as possible." She went on: "We must reinstate and expand sanctions and we must not allow Iran to get a nuclear bomb. Either the P5+1 secures a deal that includes the complete cessation of Iran's enrichment and the full dismantling of its nuclear infrastructure, or it must walk away from these doomed talks altogether."
Using characteristically hyperbolic rhetoric, Ros-Lehtinen lambasted the finalized Iran deal as "madness" and proclaimed it "simply defies logic." She pushed for members of Congress to reject the deal in the run up to Congress's vote on the deal in September 2015, declaring: "It is naive to think this nuclear deal with Iran won't make us and the world less secure, less safe and less peaceful—and therefore, we must reject it."
Ros-Lehtinen also allied with hyper-hawkish and Islamophobic figures like the Center for Security Policy's Frank Gaffney to argue against the Iran deal, telling Gaffney in a July 2015 interview: "[W]e need the public support and I hope that programs like yours Frank … have the capability to communicate clearly and in an articulate manner to your listeners what this deal means to them."
Ros-Lehtinen has supported the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian exile group that that was listed by the U.S. States Department as a terrorist group until 2012 when it was removed after a concerted campaign led by right-wing supporters in the United States, including Ros-Lehtinen and groups like the Iran Policy Committee.
In 2003, Ros-Lehtinen released a letter in support of 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."
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."
During the 2014 Gaza War, Ros-Lehtinen called for a cessation of U.S. funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which operates schools and public works projects in Gaza. She said in July 2014: "UNRWA has long overstepped its mandate and has been acting as a political entity with an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic agenda, and the United States shouldn't be funding it at all. UNRWA has a long history of incitement against Israel in its schools and it certainly has its hands dirty with its ties to Hamas, as Hamas operatives dominate UNRWA's unions."
In July 2015, after the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution welcoming a UN report on the 2014 Gaza War—which found both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes during the conflict—Ros-Lehtinen called for the U.S. to cut funding for the Council. "This latest effort by the UN Human Rights Council to delegitimize Israel and establish some false moral equivalency between the terror group Hamas and the democratic Jewish State is deplorable," she declared. "President Obama must condemn in no uncertain terms this report, the UNHRC and its continued anti-Israel agenda, and he must immediately cut all funding and withdraw from the Council until real and concrete reforms are implemented."
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.
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."