Mideast Rises on DeLay's Agenda
Syria Vote a Sign Of New Emphasis
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2003; Page A07
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), known mainly for his roles in taxes, energy and other domestic issues, has become increasingly active in foreign affairs in recent months, including a key part in yesterday's House vote to slap sanctions on Syria.
DeLay's overall interest in foreign affairs is long-standing, and he is a well-known critic of China and champion of Israel. He played host to Taiwan's president in Houston in the fall of 2001, and aggressively called for ousting Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in August 2002.
But his November ascension to the House's number-two leadership job has strengthened his leverage with the White House and his public prominence on international issues. His efforts have emboldened conservatives and alarmed liberals, who have watched DeLay nudge the country's foreign policy to the right.
"People are now listening to what I've been saying because I'm majority leader," he said in an interview yesterday.
Last night's vote on Syria is a case in point. When Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) began his campaign two years ago to place diplomatic and economic sanctions on Syria -- which the United States considers a state sponsor of terrorist groups -- he said he felt lonely, facing resistance from the Bush administration and many in Congress. He enlisted the aid of then-House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), but his bill remained stuck.
After the administration gave encouraging signs last month, Engel appealed to DeLay, who had begun focusing on Syria after a trip to Israel this summer. DeLay spoke privately with White House officials, and the administration this month gave its nod. The House passed it last night, 398 to 4.
Engel said DeLay was "instrumental in moving it through the House."
The measure, which enjoys strong Senate support, calls on the president to choose two of six sanctions unless Syria abandons support for the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and Hezbollah; ceases its occupation of Lebanon; and stops producing and acquiring weapons of mass destruction. DeLay's backing of the bill is the latest of several actions on behalf of Israel's Likud government.
In the past 18 months, DeLay also wrote a controversial resolution defending Israel's incursion into Jenin and other Palestinian cities; obtained an extra $200 million for Israel to help offset costs associated with the Palestinian uprising; helped craft the resolution calling for the use of force in Iraq; and traveled to Israel, where he addressed the Knesset.
Howard Kohr, executive director of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, calls DeLay "one of the most important, resolute and outspoken defenders of Israel."
DeLay often exhibits a clear-cut vision of foreign affairs. He frequently uses the words "good" and "evil" to describe international forces. He told Israel's lawmakers: "Standing up for good against evil is very hard work; it costs money and blood. But we're willing to pay."
Such talk makes James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, nervous. "We're in a very dangerous situation here in a significant way," Zogby said. "The religious right and hard-line ideological elements within the Jewish community have taken over the policy debate."
Some analysts say DeLay has slipped into a political vacuum on Middle East affairs created by Bush. "He has so much influence, in part, because the administration has not taken the initiative," said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor at the University of Maryland.
For DeLay, however, Israel is central. He has consistently defended the policies of Ariel Sharon's government, and criticized Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
When Congress passed the first emergency bill to finance the war in Iraq, he added $200 million to the aid the United States gives Israel annually, with $50 million extra for the Palestinians.
He has pressed State Department officials to take a harder line with the Palestinians. Jack Abramoff, an Orthodox Jew and lobbyist who advises DeLay, said some conservative Israelis call him "King of Israel."
His summer trip to Israel and Iraq apparently convinced DeLay the United States needed to crack down on Syria. Under the resolution written by Engel and Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), possible sanctions could include banning exports to Syria of "dual-use technology," prohibiting U.S. businesses from operating in Syria, freezing Syrian assets in the United States and blocking Syrian airline flights to the United States and its territories.
There was only a hint of dissent on the House floor. Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) called it a "clumsy instrument" for diplomacy.
Staff writer Maha Al-Azar contributed to this report.