Eliot Engel: Congressional Champion of Human Rights

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Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) in Washington on October 17, 2019 (Erin Scott / Reuters)

Eliot Engel, the longtime Democratic congressman from the Bronx, is in the news because he has a tough primary: He may be upended tomorrow. To read a news story about this, go here.

I’m pretty sure that Engel is my favorite Democratic member of Congress, which you may say is a low bar — and you would be right. But I have long admired Engel, who is one of the last of the Mohicans: one of the last of the JFK Democrats, as he suggested to me once.

Another way to put this is: He is the last Cold War liberal, just about.

Fifteen years ago, I noticed that the same congressmen kept showing up, when human rights required it. I wrote a piece that began as follows:

Last month, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Eliot Engel introduced their Lebanon and Syria Liberation Act. It calls for sanctions on companies and countries that help Syria acquire weapons of mass destruction; it also calls for aid to Syrian and Lebanese pro-democracy and human-rights groups.

A bit more:

Ros-Lehtinen and Engel don’t care much for the Syrian regime, and they don’t care much for tyrannical regimes elsewhere, either. They are, indeed, part of a small group of House members who can be counted on to champion human rights around the world.

Yup. Let me call the roll: Ros-Lehtinen, Frank Wolf, Chris Smith, Chris Cox, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and his brother Mario Diaz-Balart. Those are all Republicans. On the Democratic side: Engel, Tom Lantos, and Gary Ackerman. (If I have omitted anyone unfairly, forgive me.)

Reflecting on this group, Ros-Lehtinen quoted Shakespeare: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

Of the roll I have called, only three remain in Congress: Engel, Chris Smith, and Mario Diaz-Balart.

Engel has taken a special interest in the fate of Albanians, a fate that has been catastrophic over the years, and a fate that not many are interested in, frankly (outside of Albanians themselves). Albanians are more or less friendless in the world.

In the summer of 2005, Engel led a delegation to monitor elections in Albania, and I accompanied that delegation. In my subsequent piece, I wrote,

This country endured just about the worst of Communism, for 45 years. The only situation that compares to Hoxha-ruled Albania is North Korea. Compared with Albania, such Communist states as Poland and Hungary were Gardens of Eden. Hoxha broke with the Soviets in 1968, and with the Chinese in 1978 — they were dangerously liberal. No contact with the outside world was permitted. Private use of automobiles was forbidden. In the last five years, there was near famine. This was Stone Age stuff.

After Communism, of course, came the Balkan wars of the ’90s: slaughter upon slaughter.

To speak personally for a moment, I first visited Albania in 2002, when I gave some talks under the auspices of the State Department. A young intellectual from a government ministry was appointed to show me around the capital, Tirana. It occurred to me to ask him, “Did Hoxha have children?” This led to a book I wrote much later, Children of Monsters.

Back to that piece I wrote about human-rights champions in Congress. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said about Eliot Engel, “He’s such a mensch, such a great guy.” Ros-Lehtinen, recall, is a Cuban-American GOP-er from Miami.

Some more quoting, from that piece:

Ros-Lehtinen has begun a program whereby congressmen “adopt” a Cuban political prisoner, in order to call attention to that fate — and “Eliot was one of the first to respond, even though he doesn’t have any Cubans in his district.” Engel, says Ros-Lehtinen, “is a principled man,” an “incredible freedom fighter,” who “feels it in his heart.” He does not act the way he does “for political reasons.” In fact, his stances “may cut against him, in his district.”

Some more:

That district is the Bronx — at least a chunk of that borough — and beyond. Some of Engel’s positions have indeed been unpopular, with those he calls “the activists.” He has inflamed them with his support of the Cubans, and of both Iraq wars, and of the Patriot Act — and of the Terri Schiavo bill: “I voted to let the federal government take a look at” that case. (After voting, he told the press that he ultimately could not decide to “deny sustenance to this woman.”) Engel says that “if the activists aren’t happy with me, they’re not happy with me — so be it.”

Terri Schiavo, to refresh your memory, was the Florida woman at the center of a terrible, shocking right-to-die case in the mid 2000s.

On the subject of foreign affairs, Engel said to me, “I have always felt strongly about democracy. We should promote basic freedom in the world. I have throughout my career been consistent in opposing both right-wing and left-wing dictatorships.” Sticking it to Fidel Castro may not be “a normal Democratic member’s position,” but “Castro is a dictator, and to me he’s no different from Saddam Hussein or any of those other guys.” Whether “it’s Somoza or Castro or that jerk in Venezuela [Hugo Chávez], dictators should be opposed, and opposed vigorously.”

Orwell once described tyranny as “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” As a wise college professor once pointed out to me, the face doesn’t care whether the boot is black or red. Whether the boot is right-wing or left-wing. It’s still a boot, doing its horrible work.

More Engel: “I have always felt strongly about America’s role in the world. We, as a country, aren’t perfect. We’re all human, we all make mistakes. But I think our vision — what we want to share, what can be taken from our experience — is overwhelmingly positive. I don’t agree with the Blame America crowd . . .”

Earlier today, when I expressed support for Engel on Twitter, many critics responded, essentially, Figures a right-winger like Nordlinger would like Engel! The congressman is a dinosaur, people say. They say the same about me. It’s a new day and a new way, in both the Democratic and the Republican parties.

Remember what Engel said to me, way back? “If the activists aren’t happy with me, they’re not happy with me — so be it.” Boy, are they not happy with him.

(Do you know that Engel voted against Obama’s Iran deal? That was a striking bit of Democratic heterodoxy.)

Time for Engel to go, many say. Time for new blood. Well, I believe in new blood, too. And I believe in rotation in office. But, as a conservative, I like some old blood, and I believe the world will miss the likes of Eliot Engel when they’re gone, gone for good.

P.S. I realize a guy like me can do Engel no good, politically. But it comforts me that my influence on New York voters — probably on any — is nil. I also think of a wonderful old line from politics: “I’ll endorse you or your opponent, whichever helps you.”

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