Solarz’s Lessons on Combining Democracy and Security

As new members of Congress settle behind their desks in Washington, and the new chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee take up their gavels, it is a good time to remember the guidance of our friend and mentor, the late Rep. Stephen Solarz of New York, who served in the House from 1975 through 1992. His 2011 book, Journeys to War and Peace: A Congressional Memoir, published posthumously, holds lessons for young and old, Republican and Democrat alike.

Solarz was most famous in his career for his work ethic, his intellectual flexibility combined with rock-solid commitment to core human rights and national security principles, and the range of issues that he mastered. In the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he chaired the subcommittees on both Africa and Asia and the Pacific but also developed strong interests in the Middle East, Central America and the Soviet Union.

His most memorable accomplishments include helping persuade President Ronald Reagan to push strongman Ferdinand Marcos to relinquish the presidency of the Philippines in 1986 and helping to facilitate the 1991 peace in Cambodia. He also championed democratic reformers and activists in places such as Taiwan and South Korea, developed strong associations in India and Pakistan when official U.S. relations with both were often limited or strained, and staunchly supported Israel while at the same time backing up bold moves toward peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

To be sure, some colleagues found Solarz too strong-willed and too independent in his approach. And he was hardly the only key member of Congress in the post-Vietnam era to make a big difference in U.S. foreign policy. But Solarz was good enough, as he fought esophageal cancer during his later years, to collect his experiences and lessons into a short tome that is marvelous reading for any member who wonders how just one of 535 legislators can really make a meaningful difference in American foreign policy. He proved that it’s possible and, indeed, necessary.

Several lessons stand out from a consideration of all the miles of foreign travel Solarz logged, all the foreign leaders and opposition figures he spent time with, all the history he studied and all the diligent preparation and follow-up he made his staff (including one of us, Richard Bush) carry out as part of his journeys to war and peace. Consider a few:

Cultivating relationships abroad is essential. History results not just from the shifting of broad tectonic forces but also from specific choices by specific people, who are often not sure of what path they will take until the last minute. Building relationships with them can be a resource for advancing American interests, particularly if at the critical moment of decisions it allows frank exchange without appearing to dictate our preferred outcome. Only by investing in people abroad can the conditions be set for frank and honest exchange that foreign leaders will find serious and trustworthy. Especially when administration teams are new, Congress can help provide this kind of continuity.

*U.S. administrations need checks and balances abroad, too. The cliché that foreign policy should stop at the water’s edge, implying that it is best when Democrats and Republicans alike simply support their president and leave foreign policy to him or her, has never been true and is badly misleading. Solarz understood that presidents and secretaries of state can become captives of their own assumptions and that Congress, by exercising its constitutional power (or threatening to do so) can stimulate new thinking about past approaches And Solarz was a master of using all the tools at his disposal — hearings, resolutions, legislation and foreign travel — to advance his agenda. In the case of the Philippines, he built a case that if the corrupt and anti-democratic Marcos regime remained in power, U.S. interests would suffer, and his threats to condition or cut off aid convinced the Reagan administration that it would have to dump Marcos to maintain a key foreign policy and security partner.

Congress cannot responsibly exercise its power of the purse without knowledge of the world. Because the foreign affairs budgets of the U.S. government are small, relatively speaking, few new fiscally conscious members may be attracted to committees dealing with them. However, these budgets can be crucially important for American security policy, and the sums of money involved are far from insignificant. In past decisions — whether and when to cut off aid to Pakistan due to its nuclear program; whether to withhold certain financial incentives for Israel over its settlement policies; how much to help Egypt or Jordan after a Middle East peace deal; how firm to be in threatening aid cutoffs to strongmen like Mobutu in Zaire/Congo — Congress’s role during Solarz’s time was inherently and constitutionally important. But decision making must not be informed simply by parochial concerns or ideology; some sophistication in appreciating the regional environments in which foreign leaders make their decisions is essential if we are to wield productive influence.

Members of Congress can foster bipartisanship in foreign policy. Solarz often worked with Republican colleagues and Republican presidents (the GOP held the White House for 14 of his 18 years in office), sometimes to the chagrin of fellow Democrats, but always with the hope of enhancing American interests and promoting U.S. national security. With partisan rancor high in Washington today, it is especially important that new members and new committee and subcommittee chairmen and their ranking members look for ways to work together. Surprisingly, foreign policy can provide an opportunity here, because once one really focuses in on the choices the country faces abroad, domestic ideology usually winds up being an inadequate or wrongheaded guide to action.

It also just so happens that the areas Solarz studied most remain crucially important for U.S. interests and that the history of the period he was in office remains relevant to understanding circumstances today. All the more reason this eminently readable 245-page tome should have been in every member’s stocking this holiday season.