“There was no more eloquent and effective advocate on behalf of every major democracy movement over the past three decades” than former U.S. Congressman Stephen J. Solarz. He was not only “a muscular voice on foreign policy …who challenged dictators and colleagues alike,” but, David Lowe writes, he was one of that rare breed – a reflective practitioner whose memoirs are as educational as they are entertaining.
Memoirs by political figures are often written to defend and justify one’s career, answer critics, settle scores, or simply entertain. The political memoirist who writes to educate and succeeds in doing so is rare indeed. Such is the case of the late Stephen J. Solarz in his recently published autobiography Journeys to War and Peace: a Congressional Memoir (Brandeis University Press, 2011).
Solarz represented the 13th Congressional District encompassing part of the New York City Borough of Brooklyn from 1974 to 1993. The child of a broken home in which he was abandoned first by his mother and later by his step- mother, he acquired an interest in politics at an early age. Managing an unsuccessful congressional campaign as a young graduate student in government at Columbia in the mid-1960s, he learned, among many valuable lessons, “the politically toxic effects of our escalating involvement in Vietnam.”
After a brief stint in the New York State Assembly, Solarz managed to defeat a popular Brooklyn congressman by capitalizing on the latter’s indictment for bribery and perjury, which, as his friend Barney Frank later pointed out to his audience’s amusement at a Solarz campaign fundraiser, would become a recurring pattern, each time advancing his career. Joining the celebrated “Watergate class” of young liberal Democrats elected in 1974, Solarz decided that a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee would enable him “to combine my personal commitment to Israel and to ending the American military involvement in Vietnam,” two popular positions in a district that had both the largest number of Jews and Holocaust survivors in the country and a sizeable anti-war constituency.
Members of the U.S. Congress who succeed in influencing foreign policy are either Senators (think of Richard Lugar, John Kerry, and John McCain) or those in that select group of representatives who manage primarily through seniority to ascend to the chairmanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Solarz never achieved his dream of becoming the chairman, his career shortened after nine terms by a New York State redistricting plan that carved up his district and by the check overdraft scandal at the House bank in which he was identified as one of the leading offenders.
Nonetheless, he was able to use the platforms provided during his tenure by his two subcommittee chairmanships (Africa and Asia) to become a major player on issues affecting these two regions. He managed this feat through an extraordinary work ethic, a punishing travel schedule, a talented staff, and an expertise built around a formidable intellect, an insatiable curiosity, and a healthy ego that enabled him to deal directly with foreign leaders as if they were his peers.
Solarz became associated with many of the major foreign policy issues of his time, particularly those within the jurisdiction of his subcommittees: the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the demise of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, the transitions to democracy in South Korea and Taiwan, and the political settlement to the conflict in Cambodia. He describes these and other involvements in international issues through the lens of his personal encounters with world figures such as Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Anwar Sadat, and Lech Walesa, as well as tyrants such as Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, and Kim Il Sung, the latter of whom no American official had met with since the end of the Korean War. (One wishes he had avoided placing Singapore’s longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew among “some of the world’s greatest statesmen” with whom he met, which he does in his preface.)
Journeys to War and Peace is sprinkled with the author’s witty observations and his keen sense of irony. On Ferdinand Marcos and the 1986 Philippine election: “One lesson I learned from this experience is that if you’re a dictator and want U.S. support, you shouldn’t steal an election on American television.” On his decision to oppose the embargo on Turkey for its actions in Cypress: “I figured I could compensate for the lost support of the Greek Americans by winning the support of my Turkish American constituents. So I started looking for them. After several years, I finally found one.” And on his constituents in a newly drawn Hispanic majority district: “The fact that my ancestors had left Spain five hundred years earlier when they were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula didn’t qualify me as a Hispanic in their eyes.”
Solarz describes himself as an “idealist without illusions,” arguing for an activist foreign policy in the service of moral imperatives within practical limits. Although he cut his early political teeth on opposition to the Vietnam War, his thinking was deeply informed by the Holocaust (“the greatest evil in human history”) and the obligation it brought “to do everything we could” to make sure that its victims’ suffering was not in vain, a belief he said played a major role in his effort to seek an end to the Cambodian genocide.
Solarz’s tenure in Congress coincided with the period Samuel Huntington characterized as the “Third Wave” of democratization, and much of his effort was directed toward helping to push U.S. policy behind those struggling for democracy and human rights. In an excellent foreword, Norm Ornstein describes his own meetings during trips to the Philippines and Cambodia with political elites and common citizens alike who wanted to know if he actually knew Solarz, who had become a hero to them.
Following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Solarz met his greatest challenge when he became the leading spokesman in the House and arguably the entire Congress for military intervention. To say the least, it was not a popular position, not among his Democratic colleagues, not with his party’s leaders, and not in his district, where daily peace vigils were held outside his district office in Brooklyn. (“I wasn’t sure whether they were praying for my salvation or my defeat.”)
To Solarz, the Vietnam War was an incorrect analogy to a situation he regarded as “America’s first big test as the sole superpower left in the world,” one that would determine “whether, in the post-Cold War world, international relations would or would not be characterized by the rule of law.” He described his decision to play a leading role as the most difficult decision he had to make in his eighteen years in Congress.
Although Journeys to War and Peace focuses primarily on Solarz’s encounters with foreign leaders, its most valuable contribution comes at the end in a brief epilogue of lessons learned. Here the man who gave up a one-year career teaching political science at Brooklyn College to enter public life offers a number of thoughtful foreign policy guidelines and prescriptions on such critical matters as striking the proper balance between the moral imperative to act and its potential consequences, calculating when to use military force, and resolving seemingly intractable conflicts. An early congressional enthusiast of the National Endowment for Democracy who later served on its Board of Directors, Solarz wisely advises those seeking to determine how to promote democracy in nations with repressive regimes to “consult the leaders of the struggle for democracy there, who usually know their countries’ political dynamics better than we do.”
Steve Solarz completed this memoir only three months before his untimely death from esophageal cancer last fall. To a political career of formidable accomplishment, he has added this important volume rich in insights about how America can continue to strive for a more just and humane world.