Iran will be front and center next year. He says there is still much the United States can do short of war to force Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program. “We can have an effect. We can tighten economic sanctions even more. We can bolster the Democratic opposition. We can aid our ally Israel.”
He is also critical of American broadcasts into Iran. “We can make them as effective as these were in Eastern Europe in the Cold War.” He advocates that the United States get rid of loopholes and waivers in sanctions and “target the entire energy sector.” He compliments his predecessor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “Ileana has done some great work. We can build on that.” By contrast, he told me, “We’ve seen in past experience the administration was trying to slow-walk sanctions.”
On the Arab Spring many critics of the administration can’t determine what if any policy the Obama team is pursuing. Royce says, “We haven’t seen any evidence of it.” As for the attack in Benghazi, he finds it inexcusable that the United States was not better prepared. “Someone forgot to circle 9-11 on the calendar,” he says, before detailing the series of security failures leading up to the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and others. Royce says that it was well known Libya was becoming dangerous. “Ambassador Stevens articulated this view. It was all telegraphed. The Brits and Red Cross, even the U.N. took steps to protect their people.” Royce contends there are two serious errors here. “The first is we did not protect the Consulate, but on top of it once there were a series of firefights it took six hours before a quick reaction team could be brought in.” The administration, he says, perpetuated the notion that the attacks were due to an anti-Muslim film for political reasons in anticipation of the election. “They bought into an hypothesis that wasn’t true. I understand how they would have tried to defend that story.” Even after the attacks, the delinquency in investigating was jaw-dropping, he argues, pointing to the delay of weeks in getting FBI investigators to the scene.
While the executive has great authority on foreign policy, Congress controls the purse strings. He intends to pursue what he calls “conditionality.” He explains, “One piece of legislation was the anti-incitement [bill] that I and [Rep.] Howard Berman tried to pass to tie aid to the Palestinian Authority to a set of criteria to require the end of [terrorist] incitement.” He points to TV and textbooks that still perpetuate virulent anti-Semitism and call for Israel’s destruction. “The attempt is to create leverage to move behavior,” he explains. That should carry over to other countries, he explains, noting he is meeting later in the day with a group of Egyptians who are gravely concerned about the turn in the Morsi regime.
Royce also expresses the frustration of other Republicans (and some Democrats) about the lack of cooperation from the White House needed to conduct oversight. The administration may have promised it would be the “most transparent in history,” but Royce contends, “The rhetoric in no way watches the reality.” One early test will be whether the administration releases the internal State Department investigation of the Benghazi debacle and allows Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to testify, which remains an open question. (As of Friday, he tells me, “I haven’t received any new update.”) In what is certainly going to be met with some skepticism the administration subsequently announced Clinton would not testify because of a previously undisclosed concussion. (“Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Philippe Reines said Saturday that Clinton is suffering from a stomach virus, fainted and hit her head, which caused the concussion.”) It is uncertain whether this permanently disabled Clinton from coming forth.
The latest wrinkle in the Benghazi episode only highlights the challenge Royce will face. The administration lacks a coherent foreign policy, has ineptly executed it and has fought tooth and nail to prevent congressional oversight that might uncover the extent of its lapses. Unless a new secretary of state adopts a different approach (hardly likely since President Obama will remain), it will a contentious tenure for Royce in his new role. But then everything is a big fight with the Obama administration these days.