When I spoke to House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R- Fla.) this morning on the topic of the new Palestinian government she showed her characteristic steel spine and sharp tongue. When it came to Pakistan, she also demonstrated a finesse and caution missing from many public statements in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing in a huge compound outside of Abbottabad, Pakistan
Plainly, members of Congress are agitated by the realization that our ”ally,” which receives considerable U.S. aid, was harboring al-Qaeda’s chief for some period of time. Ros-Lehtinen told me that a classified briefing on the subject by the administration “stirred up more questions than answers.” She says that at nearly every encounter with her colleagues she is peppered with questions about Pakistan. The overwhelming sentiment, she says, is to “cut off all aid.” However, she says, “I believe that’s the wrong approach.” Despite our continual frustration with the Pakistani government and military unreliablity and inertness, she cautions, “They allow our drones. They do share intelligence.” She candidly says of those urging we not rush to judgment: “We’re not fools.” But knowing the limits of our relationship, she argues, “They are an important partner. We would be jeopardizing our security if we cut off aid.” With our troops in Afghanistan, a falling-out with Pakistan could mean that “things can get very bad, very quickly.”
She recalls a trip to Pakistan with Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) about a year ago when it was obvious to both lawmakers that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has been a “nervous” one for some time. And despite harsh words from lawmakers, she asks, “Do we really think Pakistan didn’t know [about our raid]?” She reminds us that often statements denying cooperation or involvement are made for “domestic consumption” (in this case, one supposes, to avoid the appearance of cooperation with the Great Satan). Her bottom line: “There is a growing movement to cut off aid. But it’s too early.” It remains to be seen whether her nuanced approach (one shared by such diverse figures as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Fred Kagan) will carry the day.
In contrast to Pakistan, Syria is a simple call for Ros-Lehtinen. Of Obama’s decision to send an ambassador to Damascus, she exclaims: ”What a mistake!” She observes that there have not been “even the most minimal” signs of reform by President Bashar al-Assad. She contends that there are sanctions currently on the books that “were never fully implemented.” In the wake of murders of hundereds of Syrians by the Assad regime, she plans to introduce a new sanctions soon with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), with whom she previously has partnered on Syrian sanctions and with whom she enjoys “a very good working relationship.” She doesn’t want it to be “an historical document that goes in some drawer.” Rather, she is aiming for passage of a sanctions regimen with real teeth.
It is evident that the administration does not share her fervor for tough action against Assad, but absent a coherent administration policy, Ros-Lehtinen may wind up leading — from the front, as is her custom.