WASHINGTON – In mid-February, as he listened intently to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress, there were moments when House budget committee chairman and recent vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan couldn’t contain himself. Seated at a table with other House Republican leaders, Ryan turned repeatedly to a fellow Republican to comment on the presidential address.
Ryan’s “wingman” that night, to borrow the Washington Post’s designation, was Peter Roskam, 51, a representative from the counties just west of Chicago.
Roskam is a “rising star” in the Republican House. His seat in Illinois’ 6th District is secure, with victories of 18%, 28% and 18% in 2008, 2010 and 2012 respectively, and comfortable leads in all five counties (or parts of counties) in his district in 2012. As chief deputy whip of the House Republicans for the second term in a row, “a position that has been a traditional stepping stone for higher spots in GOP leadership,” according to Politico, he is comfortably ensconced as the fourth-highest ranked member of the majority party in the 435-member House.
Govtrack, a website that ranks the ideological positions and influence of members of Congress through Google-like algorithms of each member’s bill sponsorships, testifies to Roskam’s influence – and his notable capacity to reach across the aisle. It has ranked Roskam a “moderate Republican leader,” not far on the graph from Majority leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. It is an appellation that confirms both his influence on bills and his penchant for working with the other side to get things done.
It doesn’t hurt that he had a good working relationship with President Barack Obama back when both served in the Illinois Senate.
Yet one of the least-noticed elements of Roskam’s long political career – he has been a state and federal elected official for some 20 years, after serving as a House legislative assistant in the 1980s – is his increasingly pivotal role when it comes to Israel and the Middle East.
Now starting his fourth term in the House, Roskam co-chairs the House Republican Israel Caucus and is a member of both the bipartisan Israel Allies Caucus and the Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance, which supports efforts to strengthen the relationship between Israel and Greece.
He has pushed for several key AIPAC-supported proposals in Congress, including the Iron Dome Act, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act and the United States-Israel Strategic Alliance and Security Act. When 100 members of Congress sent President Obama a letter ahead of his trip to Israel urging him to make the US-Israel security relationship the centerpiece of the visit, that letter was co-authored by Roskam and a pro-Israel (and Jewish) Democrat, Henry Waxman of California. When another recent bipartisan letter made news for calling on the administration to tighten efforts on Iranian sanction-dodging through reflagging of vessels – it, too, was coauthored by Roskam and a Jewish Democrat, Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida.
Indeed, Roskam’s office is one of the few in Congress to have a staff member devoted solely to Mideast issues.
Roskam’s interest in Israel is not new, either. He has been to Israel five times, including twice since becoming a congressman. And his support for “unambiguous” – a word he uses frequently – US backing of Israel is consistent with a more assertive stance on foreign policy in general. He was a strong supporter of an aggressive US response to the insurgency in Iraq in his first House bid in 2006, and was a supporter of the Bush administration’s 2007 Iraqi troop surge.
“I think the world admires strength and clarity from the United States,” he told the Times of Israel in a recent interview in his bustling Washington office.
Asked whether strong US backing for Israel could be a drain on US political capital in a volatile region, Roskam’s reply suggests he believes that US support for Israel is the shorthand by which America explains to the region what it stands for.
“Regardless what their position is, the world admires a country that sticks with its allies. And I think strength and clarity are virtues that are well-served. Remember, this is not a one-way relationship. Countries that have values that are closely knit, and defend those values in a region that has not had a history of celebrating democracy, has not had a history of celebrating individual liberties, has not had a history of celebrating the role of women in the marketplace, all of these things are joint values that need to be defended and articulated.”
AIPAC has recently expressed strong support for legislation designating Israel a “major strategic ally” of the United States. While some critics of Israel have railed against the legislation, the Jewish and Israeli press has largely scratched its head trying to understand what practical significance the new designation might have.
For Roskam, the significance is clear.
“I think if you peel away the veneer,” he says, “what it’s really doing at a macro level is saying unambiguously to the world, and particularly to Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East, ‘This is an incredibly important strategic relationship that the United States has. Israel’s strength and prosperity is in America’s best interest, and as a result this relationship is going to be recognized as such.’ All it’s saying is, this relationship is unique, special, and the US and Israel have a joint value system, joint goals, and are going to enter into strategic relationships that reflect that.”
The regional perspective is part of the strength of the US-Israel relationship.
The Arab Spring, “as we all know, has turned out to be incredibly disappointing at one level, based on the level of carnage in Syria, the disappointment with the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood and their attitude in Egypt. So without question the Arab spring has an influence” on the importance of Israel as a US ally.
And US support for Israel is good for the region as well. A strong Israel, Roskam explained, is more likely to take chances for peace. That idea, widely held on both sides of the aisle, was a key message on Obama’s recent visit to Israel.
“I’ve long maintained, and I’m sure I’m not the first, that the ability of Israel to demonstrate any kind of flexibility as it relates to negotiating is premised on a strong US relationship. Or said another way, if Israel is confident in its relationship with the United States, then Israel has more confidence and as a result more flexibility in its ability to deal with its Arab neighbors. If its relationship is tenuous, it has an adverse impact on Israel’s ability to interact with its neighbors,” he said.
That principled view of the relationship is tempered by an instinctive pragmatism.
On sequestration: Congress’ friendliness to Israel will not save it from cuts to military aid and joint missile defense projects. When the administration starts to cut from the budgets of the departments of State and Defense, “there’s only so much bandwidth to make changes within the sequestered cuts.”
Should Israeli security assistance be exempted from sequestration cuts, as AIPAC has asked?
“They can’t,” he responded simply. “We’re all in it together.”
On Iran, while calling for US backing for any Israeli action Israel feels it must take, Roskam acknowledges American fatigue when it comes to military action in the Middle East.
“The United States and the American public are tired. They’re tired of an obligation in Iraq. They’re tired of an obligation in Afghanistan. In terms of lives, sacrifice and treasure the United States is feeling weary right now.”
But, he adds, “the United States doesn’t have the luxury of being weary very long in light of the obvious threat” from Iran.
The hope of some “that somehow Iran is going to reconcile itself by itself is not going to happen. So the US needs to be very clear. Israel needs to be very clear. There ought not to be significant daylight between leaders of the two nations as it relates to their assessment of the nuclear threat and their clarity about what they will do with their threat.
“All options” – Roskam referenced Israel’s 1981 strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor – “need to be on the table unambiguously. That’s not to say that the US is ready to run headlong into a new conflict. But that is to say that the United States needs to be clear that it has no tolerance for the Iranian regime to get this capability. And we also need to be clear that if Israel acts, that we’re in a position to stand by Israel.”
Would there be support for a potential Israeli strike?
“I think the best analogy is to go back to 1981. Don’t you get the feeling that when Menachem Begin made the decision to move that there were some folks in the United States who ‘denounced’ it, [while] at the same time they were cheering? Isn’t that the subtext of this whole story? That is, Arab neighbors of the Iranians are basically looking at Israel and the United States, saying, ‘doesn’t this get fixed somehow?’
“There would be a level of understanding should action have to be taken,” Roskam believes.
But what of the US administration? Would it countenance Israeli military action?
“I hope so. Look, I hope that there’s a high level of coordination. I go back to 1967, where Israel made a decision to act. The US at the time wasn’t giving the green light. Israel made a decision that it was an existential threat, and was exonerated by history. That’s a bit of a watchword I think today.”
It’s hard not to use a couple minutes of an interview with one of Congress’ key legislative wranglers to ask about the issue that the average Israeli would likely place at the top of the US-Israel legislative agenda: H.R. 300, the Visa Waiver for Israel Act of 2013, which would grant Israelis the ability to visit the United States for 90 days at a time, for business or pleasure, without a visa.
Roskam supports the bill. “Adding Israel to the Visa Waiver Program will strengthen the cultural and economic bond between our two nations,” he said in a statement when he became a cosponsor of the bill in February.
But can it pass?
“The traditional objections to visa waivers don’t exist with Israel,” Roskam explains. “You take a combination of a strong strategic relationship, strong economic ties, strong security [and border control arrangements on the Israeli side], and all of those come together to say, this is something that should enjoy bipartisan support to be expanded.”
But it will take time, he cautioned. “It will go through what’s described as regular order here. That means that the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over this issue, and you’ll have input on a cross-jurisdictional basis from committees that have something to say about it, maybe from [the] foreign affairs [committee], for example.”
But, he assures, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) is “a good supporter of Israel,” and the bill “would enjoy strong support on the floor of the House if it were something that were to stand alone, and if it were a bill that were presented. At this point, I wouldn’t be able to predict what’s the format or form of the bill that would come out of committee. But in concept, I think it would be very strongly supported on a bipartisan basis. So I’m very optimistic.”