Congressman Tom Lantos Urges Engagement, Not Isolation
Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee and WDI founding board member suggests course for next president.
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—The tangible price, in blood and treasure, of the war in Iraq may be staggering. But it is the intangible cost of the conflict—a penetrating sense of disappointment and an isolationist mood among the American people—that presents the utmost challenge for the next president of the United States, argued Congressman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in an Oct. 29 lecture sponsored by the Ross School of Business and the William Davidson Institute (WDI).
More than 3,800 American soldiers have died and more than 28,000 have been wounded since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003. Lantos reported the estimated price tag of the war could exceed some $2 trillion when all is said and done.
"But the greatest cost of this undertaking," he emphasized, "could be the turning inward of the American people and their intent not to become engaged in the world, come 2009."
Given the realities of the globe, this desire to withdraw from the world stage could not come at a worse time, he said. International organizations such as the United Nations and NATO have proved ineffectual of late, leaving the unenviable job of world disciplinarian to the United States.
"It is a fact of life," Lantos said. "This tumultuous world needs some structure, some order and some sense of rule. And since the American people are very unhappy playing this role, the task of the next president will be, domestically, to persuade the American people that there is literally no alternative but to continue the global leadership role of the United States."
Lantos, a founding board member of WDI, set forth advice for the next president with hopes of reshaping foreign policy in the wake of the Iraq war. "Don't do unto others as you would have them do unto you," he warned. "Their tastes may be different from yours."
Restoring global credibility, prestige and influence for the United States will be the next president's most laborious, difficult and time-consuming job. Such an undertaking likely will extend beyond two presidential terms, and the next president will have to be told—unless it comes naturally¿that "it is the tone that makes the music."
"Diplomacy is not surrender," said Lantos, stressing the need for humility, openness and a willingness to listen when conducting international affairs. "Dialogue is the most important step we can take to make it feasible to live in this nuclear age without confrontation."
Lantos cited some of his own career high points in which dialogue advanced foreign relations with both Libya and Albania. He said he also is encouraged by a gradual improvement in relations with North Korea. But Iran continues to refuse dialogue with the United States, and no American member of Congress has received a visa to that nation since 1979.
"Without dialogue, we are unable to take the many slow, painful and necessary steps to defuse this dangerous situation," he said, affirming his own commitment to keep lobbying for entry to Iran.
However challenging relations with Iran prove to be, Lantos said he does see help on the horizon. Recent changes in the leadership of Germany and France bode well for U.S. foreign relations in mediating world affairs. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, are "light-years apart from their predecessors," he said.
The future American president will face many daunting challenges in 2009, but they are not the worst in history, said Lantos, the only member of Congress who is a Holocaust survivor. Reflecting on his boyhood in Budapest at the onset of World War II, Lantos recalled a universal sense of uncertainty about that war's outcome. "For a long time it was very doubtful who would win," he said, citing the incomprehensible loss of life at 55 million casualties.
He does not feel that same uncertainty about the outcome of the war in Iraq.
"There isn't anybody on this planet who has a touch of rational, analytical capability who really believes that the Taliban or Al Qaeda (or groups like them) will prevail in this confrontation," he said.
A significant lesson Americans can learn from World War II is unity, said Lantos. "The number one task of the next president will be to unify this nation. The future does not look promising as long as the differences among us remain as serious, deep and bitter as they are today."
That said, he remains "extremely optimistic" about the future, calling it "self-evident" that, whatever our differences, the civilized nations of this world will prevail against Islamic fundamentalism.
"The civilized world is most of us: China, India, Japan, Europe, Brazil, and most of the places on this planet, which accounts for my optimism," said Lantos. "But we will prevail with less cost in blood and treasure if we, in this country, again become united and are not afraid to engage in dialogue and diplomacy on a global scale. That is my message to the next president of the United States: dialogue and diplomacy."
WDI is a nonprofit research and educational institution dedicated to creating and disseminating expertise on business and policy issues in emerging economies. Lantos, currently serving his 13th term in the U.S House of Representatives, has served on WDI's board since its inception in 1992. Earlier this year, William Davidson endowed a chair in Lantos' name. WDI Executive Director Bob Kennedy is the first to hold the title of Tom Lantos Professor of Business Administration.
Written by Deborah Holdship
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