House International Affairs Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and the ranking Democrat, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), hosted a small, private, invitation-only reception for new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki just before he addressed a joint session of Congress on Wednesday morning.
It's rare for a world leader to be given the honor of taking the podium in the House chamber to talk to members of Congress. Two Illinois Democrats, Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Rahm Emanuel, led the drive for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert to cancel al-Maliki's invitation to speak because the Iraqi leader condemned Israeli attacks on Lebanon and called "on the world to take quick stands to stop the Israeli aggression.'' His words contradicted U.S. policy.
Making matters worse, Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani accused Jews of masterminding killings in Iraq carried out by Sunni or Shiite insurgents, a preposterous assertion.
Hastert did not cancel. He said dialogue needed to remain open. Anyway, disinviting al-Maliki would have generated its own series of ramifications and embarrassed the Bush White House, which lavished the prime minister with attention. To cap off the two-day trip, Vice President Dick Cheney was to host a dinner for al-Maliki Wednesday night.
Al-Maliki's visit to the United States, his first as the democratically elected leader of Iraq, coincides with this latest outbreak of Mideast violence, triggered when Lebanon-based Hezbollah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in Israel. The timing is unfortunate because it created a path to link both violent, difficult and complex conflicts costing lives each day.
But because Schakowsky and Emanuel threw a spotlight on the prime minister, it gave the world in general and the United States in particular a chance to better know al-Maliki's views. Better to know than to guess. Al-Maliki chose during his joint news conference Tuesday with President Bush to brush aside a question about his Hezbollah remarks.
Hyde told me he chose not to confront al-Maliki about his Hezbollah remarks when they met at the Capitol for over an hour.
But Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress, did talk to al-Maliki about his comments. Lantos told al-Maliki he was among friends who wanted him to succeed. But "statements that used to go unnoticed are carefully scrutinized,'' Lantos told al-Maliki. "It is a sign of self-confidence and greatness to be able to say 'I made a mistake.' It is important for you to know the American public is determined to see Hezbollah destroyed.''
Lantos continued, "It is very important given our very complex relationship . . . that you restate your public stance on this issue. If not, our relationship will be severely strained. You now have to take a broader view of issues and realize that what you say is listened to around the globe.''
(As Democrats' concerns were growing, the Iraq ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie, met Monday with Lantos privately and apologized for al-Maliki's comments about Israel, Lantos spokesman Lynne Weil said.)
Hyde told me that al-Maliki's comments on Hezbollah were "the statement of an amateur politician who ought to know the interrelationships between Israel and the United States.
"What he said I think was not carefully thought out, though it was a window, I suppose, to how some of these Arab leaders feel. It was unwise. It was not helpful. He obviously did not expect the reaction he got. It diverted attention to the reason he came here.''
Hyde said the result was that al-Maliki's trip to Washington was "diminished, to some extent, I don't know what.''
Schakowsky watched al-Maliki's speech in her House office. Emanuel attended the session. Their insistence on highlighting al-Maliki's comments made it a part of the conversation. "None of this amounts to an explanation, a changing of views or an apology,'' Schakowsky told me after he spoke. "This was not a boycott. I did not want to be a part of an inevitable enthusiastic greeting.''
Emanuel noted that world leaders come and go in Washington all the time and don't get an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress. Just being on the podium, Emanuel said, is a highly symbolic display for foreign leaders "not because they agree with us, because we have a common set of values. He clearly was criticizing a country that was on the receiving end of terror.''
Said Emanuel: "Addressing Congress is a privilege, not a right.''
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