Interview with Peter Roskam: Time for a New Middle East Policy
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the House deputy majority whip, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) authored an op-ed in Politico today, urging a second look at funding for the Palestinians in lieu of the Hamas-Fatah merger. I spoke to Roskam by phone this afternoon.
The op-ed comes at a key moment in U.S.-Israeli relations. He said, "The timing is important because the president is giving a major policy address." He also points to the upcoming visit of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who will speak to a joint session of Congress. Roskam would like to see President Obama "make clear that the PA has made an affirmative choice" in teaming up with Hamas. Such an entity, he told me, is "outside the scope of those lawfully able" to receive taxpayer money. He's not certain that the administration fully appreciates how strong bipartisan congressional sentiment is on this point. "We will find out tomorrow if the administration understands."
As for the president's speech, Roskam said, "I would like to hear him giving a strong, clear affirmation that Israel is our best friend in the Middle East." Given the president's past approach, Roskam would also like to hear the president declare that "we are not going to put pressure on Israel to bid against itself" in negotiations, if there are any, with the Palestinians.
With regard to the rest of the Middle East, Roskam is blunt. He said that no one can really dispute that the administration has "underperformed" in the region. Roskam is concerned that the "mixed messages and ambiguity have exacerbated" tensions and instability there. In Syria, for example, the administration has intervened in countries with "comparatively less importance" than Syria to U.S. security. He would like to see some acknowledgment that our past approach hasn't worked. He compares today's events to the situation in June 2009 in Iran, when the administration "squandered' an opportunity to align itself with the democracy movement. Roskam urged that Obama take "the opportunity to be more forthright and clear" about where we stand.
He is far from Pollyanish about the Arab Spring. Pointing to yet another hot spot in Yemen, he cautions that democracy is about more than "bumper stickers and ballots." Given the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and rumblings about Egypt's modification of its peace treaty with Israel, Roskam said that the United States should be looking to help those countries that are interested in a peaceful relationship with Israel.
On a measure introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to ramp up sanctions against Iran, he thinks there is "a growing sentiment that this is a good, strong" bill. He said, "If it came to the floor it would be easy to whip."
We then moved on to domestic issues. Roskam is emphatic on the debt ceiling increase. "The reality is that Congress will not pass a clean debt ceiling increase," he said. "The American people don't want us to." The next step is for the House Republicans to reach agreement on a set of cuts to obtain in exchange for the debt ceiling increase. He promised that it will be "dramatic."
And on the related issue of taxes, he left no wiggle room. "There will be no tax increase so long as Republicans are in the majority." He pointed to the "whole host" of tax hikes the president has proposed and contrasted that with the efforts of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) who is holding hearings on tax reform. Although some have cautioned that a proposal would go nowhere with this president, Roskam told me that Camp's attitude is that the Republicans should move forward and "there could be a time when there is a possibility" for real tax reform. He then made a critical point that is often overlooked by Republicans (including presidential aspirants). "The lede that gets buried," he told me, is that tax reform is not an end in itself, but part of a larger pro-growth agenda.
Roskam's positions — on Israel, Iran and fiscal issues — should debunk the notion that there is some gap between GOP leadership and the grass roots. The real story since the 2010 election has been the degree to which GOP House leadership has held to and intensified its adherence to an agenda of shrinking government, barring tax increases and supporting Israel. And as to Israel, there is no sign of any significant disagreement with House Democrats. If Obama wants to take a different tack, he'll find himself quickly isolated, not where the president wants to be as he heads into the 2012 election.