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Stephen Solarz dies: Former N.Y. congressman was 70

N.Y. Congressman Stephen J. Solarz at home in McLean with his dog and his wife, Nina, in 1991, a year before his election defeat.
N.Y. Congressman Stephen J. Solarz at home in McLean with his dog and his wife, Nina, in 1991, a year before his election defeat. (Richard A. Lipski)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 9:20 PM

Former U.S. Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, 70, a Brooklyn Democrat who became a muscular voice on foreign policy during nine terms in Congress and who challenged dictators and colleagues alike with a hard-driving style, died Nov. 29 at George Washington University Hospital. He had esophageal cancer.

Until his election defeat in 1992 - a combination of redistricting and implication in the House bank overdraft scandal - Mr. Solarz amassed a formidable policy record through his membership on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. Solarz was a tenacious, deeply informed and sharp-tongued politician who evoked strong passions with his unapologetically robust role in international affairs. He rebuked presidents, criticized House members and interrogated bureaucrats with little regard for the social fallout. He earned a reputation as a micromanager of foreign policy.

As chairman of subcommittees on African affairs and later Asian and Pacific affairs, Mr. Solarz helped shape the American response to crises all over the world. He saw a more assertive role for the House on international affairs, a role traditionally taken by the Senate.

Former Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who served with Mr. Solarz on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said, "Steve was one of a handful of members who in a post-Watergate era put the House of Representatives on a competitive footing with the Senate in foreign policy discussions."

Through public hearings and advocacy in the press, Mr. Solarz was a relentless critic of the corrupt and autocratic Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos; expressed support for democracy movements in South Korea and Taiwan; and highlighted human rights abuses against Vietnamese refugees by Thai pirates.

On apartheid South Africa, he called for the "constructive enragement" of economics sanctions as a moral imperative over "constructive engagement" of continued negotiations.

He helped funnel millions of dollars to Cambodian resistance fighters aiming to topple the pro-Vietnamese communist government in Phnom Penh. And he was one of the most outspoken Democratic supporters of the Persian Gulf War, believing economic sanctions were ineffective against Saddam Hussein.

He accused many in his party who disagreed with his hawkish stance of being squarely on the wrong side of history. He likened those opponents to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who "offered Czechoslovakia on a silver plate to Hitler."

Several years earlier, Mr. Solarz gained wide attention with his frequent public attacks on Marcos, a major Cold War recipient of U.S. military aid. For years, Marcos's rule was tolerated because he was seen as a bulwark against the spread of communism in Asia.

Mr. Solarz met with Marcos in August 1983 and threatened to try to reduce the spigot of military aid unless the Philippine leader curbed abuses and held free elections.

Days later, opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. was slain after returning to Manila from U.S. exile. A distraught Mr. Solarz became one of the staunchest U.S. protectors of Aquino's widow, Corazon.

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