A Wide Ranging Interview with US Rep. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois
by Jerry Gordon (Sept. 2008)
Illinois Rep. Mark S. Kirk of the suburban Chicago 10th House District has been called “One of the Brightest Members of the House” by the Chicago Tribune. Morton Kondracke, Executive Editor of Roll Call and one of FoxNews “Beltway Boys” considers Kirk as “one of Congress’s most effective moderates.” Kirk has served the Illinois 10th district in Congress for four terms, first winning election in 2000, succeeding Rep. John Porter, who he served as Chief of Staff. This fall he goes up against Democrat Daniel Seals, a repeat of the 2006 contest for his House seat. Presuming that Illinois Senator Barack Obama is the Democratic Presidential nominee, Kirk could face some ‘coattail effects’ even in his home district.
However, that belies the mettle of this remarkable moderate Republican Representative. His broad reach goes far beyond the essential domestic ones. He tackles foreign policy issues of importance to his constituents regarding Israel, Iran, Darfur, and human rights in Bengladesh. He is co-founder of the House Iran Working Group and the US - China Working Group. Kirk is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and its Subcommittees on Financial Services and General Government, State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. He is Co-chairman of the Tuesday Group -a coalition of mainstream Republican Members in the House. This commendation upon his election in 2004 as Co-Chair of the Tuesday Group underlines respect for his background and valued expertise:
“In the House and as a Commander in the Naval Reserve, Mark is a demonstrated leader who promotes a positive message and agenda to unite our party,” said Deborah Pryce (R-OH), Chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. “In this position, Mark’s institutional knowledge, grasp of the issues, and political skills will serve the Tuesday Group and the entire Republican Conference well.”
Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has written about his thoughtful bi-partisan proposals for thwarting Iran’s nuclear threats to “wipe Israel off the map of the world.” Others have also chronicled his unstinting support for victims of human rights violation in Eritrea and Bangladesh. Especially noteworthy in this regard have been Kirk’s efforts, together with New York Democratic Representative Nita Lowey, championed by human rights advocate Dr. Richard Benkin of Mount Prospect, Illinois, to save the life of Bangladeshi journalist, Shoaib Choudhury. Choudhury has been imprisoned, tortured and charged with sedition and other capital offenses by the Islamist government simply because he dared to try and visit Israel in 2003 and for exposing the rise of radical Islam in Bangladesh.
Kirk’s background is remarkable as well. Born in the district, he was educated at New Trier High School. After a stint at the Autonomous University in Mexico he went on to finish his Bachelors at Cornell, and then took a Masters degree at the London School of Economics. It was during that period in the early 1980’s, that Kirk had a stint as an aide to a Member of Parliament. Kirk returned to the US to take a JD at Georgetown University.
He was commissioned a Naval Reserve Intelligence officer in 1989. Currently holding the rank of a Navy Commander, Kirk spends a weekend a month as a Deputy Intelligence Officer at the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center. He served tours in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Panama. He was an air crewman flying missions over Northern Iraq. In 1999, for his Kosovo tour, he was named “Naval Intelligence Officer of the Year.”
After service to his predecessor, Rep. Porter, Kirk went to the World Bank (1990) before President George H. W. Bush appointed him as the Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs at the U.S. State Department. At State, Kirk worked on ending civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. President Bill Clinton reappointed Kirk to work in his Administration on the restoration of democracy in Haiti
Kirk briefly practiced law with Baker & McKenzie (1993–94) before being named Counsel to the House International Relations Committee.
Kirk’s House District covers Lake and portions of Cook counties. The district abuts the shore of Lake Michigan to its East. Notable communities in the district include Waukegan in the North, Highland Park in the Center (where Kirk and his wife Kim reside), Northbrook, and Mount Prospect in the South and Buffalo Grove in the western portion. Kirk’s district has nearly 700,000 residents. It has an average income of $96,000. About one fifth of the registered voters are Jewish and predominately Democrat. The Great Lakes Naval Training Station with over 30,000 jobs in located in the District as is a major Veterans Administration health facility that Kirk has supported. Because of the district’s location adjacent to Chicago, domestic issues like commuter transportation, environmental, especially water pollution, education and health care are ‘de rigueur’ for Congressman Kirk. As a result of these constituent concerns, Kirk is a member of the Suburban Caucus in the House.
Kirk has a 75% rating from the League of Conservation Voters, 100% from Planned Parenthood for his pro-choice support and 100% ratings from the Chicago area JPAC and from AIPAC, the national Israel lobby group.
Congressman Kirk has co-authored more than three dozen pieces of national legislation many vitally impacting his district constituents and all Americans.
Congressman Kirk, we welcome this opportunity to interview you.
1. You may be the last of a ‘dying breed’ a moderate Republican in a Chicago suburban district with heavy Democratic registration. How did you succeed in being re-elected four times? To what issues and alliances do you attribute your success?
A focus on local issues, saving a veterans hospital, building a new commuter rail line, preventing new sewage dumping in Lake Michigan. There are a lot of things that a Congressman can do. But what I have focused on is making sure that veterans are cared for, the people get to work and that our drinking water is clean.
2. You have been assiduous in cultivating a network of bi-partisan relations on Capitol Hill. Has that enabled you to get more traction for your views and legislative initiatives?
It has. Just about every bill or amendment that I introduce has a Democratic co-sponsor. I have done that because of my experience as a Congressional staffer before I was elected to Congress. I saw that bi-partisan cooperation is absolutely essential in making the Congress work. It is especially important for moving your ideas through the Senate. In just about everything we do we find a Democratic partner who has similar views to ours to then move our agenda through the Congress.
3. You have publicly stated that the US desperately needs to implement a rational energy policy. Could you outline for us the critical elements of such a rational energy policy and which elements need priority attention?
Number one, the United States should fund new alternative sources of fuel. Number two, we should reward conservation. Number three, we should explore current American energy sources offshore. The work that the United States Congress can do right now focuses on a very powerful bi-partisan consensus behind permanent tax credits for alternative fuels like wind, hydro, solar, geo-thermal, etc. Those tax credits currently are not permanent but many of them expire. We should send a permanent green light to American inventors. We need to reward conservation, especially hybrid and electric cars. We have raised the fuel economy standards for the US, probably the single greatest reform that would affect the fuel price at the pump here in Illinois. We need to go further. Many people don’t realize that when you purchase a Toyota Prius, for example, right now there is no tax credit available. It was limited only to the first 50,000 vehicles. We should take those limits off so that we convert our vehicle fleet to hybrid or electric as fast as possible. Last, we estimate around 80 billion barrels of oil are on the outer continental shelf. The question before us is can we wean ourselves off oil? Buy our remaining oil from places like Iran and Venezuela, or do we buy it from ourselves? I think there is now a decisive bi-partisan consensus in the Congress and a majority in the House that we should lift current offshore oil development restrictions.
4. You and New Jersey Democratic Congressman Rob Andrews formed the bi-partisan Iran Working Group in 2004. Proposals for some interesting and creative sanctions have come out of that relationship; most notably, a moratorium on gas and diesel fuel deliveries from foreign refineries to Iran. Why do you believe this has not gotten more play from our State and Treasury Departments?
We looked at options with regard to US foreign policy with Iran. Option one, let the United Nations deal with this issue using sanctions. 50 percent of UN General Assembly resolutions condemn Israel. So there are no prospects for a fair shake. The other option is boycotting Iran’s oil shipments, but that is an extremely unpredictable and expensive option. Rob and I have spent hundreds of hours. We have met with our allies, British, Israelis, and French, UN officials, State Department and Defense department. We even had an extraordinary lunch with the Iranian UN Ambassador reviewing our options. We found that Iran’s greatest strength and weakness can be used for power diplomacy. The Mullahs have certainly mishandled Iran’s energy picture. This nation has, with its own technicians, produced a lot of oil but is still behind in their refinery capacity so that they have to import over half of their gasoline from overseas. This would give the United States the opportunity to implement what Jack Kennedy would have called a ‘gas quarantine’ which would bring tremendous pressure on the Iranian government to live up to its commitments to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. Recently, we have obtained a lot of support for this idea. About two months ago, Senator Obama endorsed the idea. Senator McCain endorsed it. Prime Minister Olmert of Israel endorsed it. However, we don’t have the full support of the State Department, currently Secretary Rice is against this idea. The likelihood is that the coming Administration which will be sworn in, whether a President Obama or a President McCain will look very favorably towards this option.
5. Do you and others in the House Iran Working Group believe that including Israel in the MAD missile defense shield program would be a sufficient deterrent to an Iran with the stated goal of Israel’s annihilation? We note the delivery of X-band mobile radar sets by the US that now give Israel less than a five minute warning to counter incoming Iranian missiles.
It’s the best we can do for ground based radar at this point with the technology available to America. Less than one month ago, Israel using her own radars would only have 30 seconds warning if a missile was fired from Iran arching over the Middle East. I have been working since March on this program for Israel. The X-band radar units that I have worked with Congresswoman Harman of California to give to Israel offers five times the range so that Israel’s defenses have a much better opportunity to identify the threat and bring it down. When this system is fully installed, it will also be hooked up to the US early warning satellite network that offers Israel’s defenders a full 11 minute warning, the time it takes missiles launched from Tehran to reach Israel. But I think that is a practical and demonstrable way that this great democracy from across the sea can help out this little ally and we are doing all we can to ensure that the 21st Century doesn’t have a Second Holocaust that visits Israel.
6. You have gone on record as opposing any aid to Hamas given its official US terrorist organization designation. Are you also opposed to ‘engaging’ Hamas in discussions and why?
Hamas is an organization that has killed a large number of people including Israelis and Americans. It started out as a terrorist political group that is dedicated to the destruction of a member of the United Nations. So, when you decide that you are going to start dealing with terrorists who are undermining a basic principal in the UN charter, then you will end up in a morass when you are dealing with any number of terrorist organizations from small countries down to 20 guys and a pickup truck. I think that there should be certain minimum standards that we should encourage. When we look at Gaza and the West Bank we have the agonizing problem of not having a key party who can deliver on a negotiated settlement. In Gaza you have any one of 17 security organizations all responding to their own chain of command. And so, even if you made a decision about whom you were going to deal with in Hamas, Hamas is not in control of all the armed groups in the West Bank and Gaza. Even so, this radical terrorist group can’t deliver a peace agreement without a fundamental change in their charter that seeks to destroy Israel
7. Recently, the U.S. rejected four Gaza Fulbright visiting scholars from entry into the US because of connections with terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Why in your opinion did our government finally react to your public suggestion for proper screening?
Well, there is always a struggle in our Embassy in Tel Aviv and the State Department bureaucracy with regard to Gaza to overlook the terrorist law enforcement records, because according to their argument, this guy might have been an admitted terrorist last year, but he chose to reform. The point that we made with regard to these applicants whose entry was unsafe was that they should be denied entry to the United States. Not because we were against them per se, but we were concerned that they were graduates of Gaza Islamic University, a university largely controlled and run by Hamas. The Gaza Palestinian police have overrun a US – sponsored chemistry lab where Hamas agents were teaching the chemistry of suicide bombs in a US funded institution. The United States government on our request had set up a terrorist screening system to make sure that US foreign assistance didn’t go to terrorist organizations. But the State Department insisted that these applicants’ names not be run through that system even though the US taxpayers had already paid for it. So the point that we made was that since we paid for this terrorist screening system, and it is an expensive data base, therefore if these people are terrorists, the upside is that we prevented entry of terrorists into the United States. The downside is that we were letting Palestinian terrorists into the United States that could have resulted in a possible 9/11. What I tried to do was keep the matter at a practical and calm level by suggesting you should run the names of these folks through the terrorist screening and database system that you have already established. From what we understand, they did, and they flunked the test.
8. You and New Jersey Democratic Congressman Steve Rothman sponsored legislation for an audit of US contributions to the UNWRA refugee camps. Why do you think this audit is necessary and how would you propose that the nearly 60 year support for these Palestinian refugee camps be ended?
When we use the term refugees we think about a person forced across an international border against their will. That applies to all refugees everywhere in the world except for people who left what is Israel. The definition for their refugee status is anyone pushed across international borders or their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and all descendents thereof. We end up with a “refugee” community that has never lived in Israel and now may be two to three generations from this bitter experience inside Israel proper. UNWRA is different. When you think about a UN agency conducting humanitarian operations. You think about Mexicans, Bolivians, Swiss and Japanese employees under the aegis of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But UNWRA is run by 98% Palestinians. They have deep connections to the politics of both West Bank and Gaza including Hamas, the terrorist organization. We first became concerned when we heard that several UN employees left their jobs and stood for office as Hamas candidates. The irony is that they left the United Nation’s employ to join a political group dedicated to the destruction of a member of the United Nations. When they failed in their efforts to win their election, the UN re-hired them and I thought that was unfortunate. We began a greater level of scrutiny and found that UNWRA would not monitor payments to families of suicide bombers. It was a $400 million dollar operation that would flunk any audit of a company here in the United States. Then they have provided security for terrorist operations in several school yards that are rocket and mortar locations to shell Israeli towns. Congressman Rothman and I became very concerned about the integrity, the honesty and the allegiance of many key senior UNWRA leaders.
9. In the wake of Israeli PM Olmert’s announcement that he will be stepping down as Israel’s political leader, do you think the current peace process is effectively ended?
The difficulty is when you have an implacable foe or a multiple of divided foes who wouldn’t talk to each other let alone talk to you, you have to realize that an agreement is not achievable today. Rather than chase down every terrorist group on the West Bank and Gaza, today, and try to agree to a peace, there are times when you have to hang tough. To conclude a final peace agreement with Israel, you have two parties, Israel and the Palestinians. First, establish a stop of the violence. This is a key moment for the PA and for the State of Israel. When Ben Gurion shelled a ship, the Altalena, bringing arms in to Jewish rebels in the Irgun that were not part of the Israeli Defense Forces, he was right to do so. Only the Israeli Defense Forces spoke for the Jewish state and its defense, and responded to a central command. Any agreement that Israel signed would be carried out under that command. Such a key reform has never been made on the Palestinian side. Until the Palestinian leaders finally unify all of their various security organizations under one central command, it is very difficult to sign an agreement because they don’t have the real power to carry out the promises made.
10. Has the US failed to contain Hezbollah in Lebanon? Does this increase the likelihood of another war with Israel by Iran’s proxy Hezbollah?
Yes, it has. Hezbollah has largely gutted the structure of the very laudable government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. The new government in Lebanon has completely granted local control to Hezbollah. Iran has fully rearmed Hezbollah. The indications are that the longer range rockets and missiles could hit key Israeli cities like Haifa. I worry that despite the UN peacekeeping force and $500 million of US taxpayers’ money that we simply reset the stage for another tragedy.
11. You have gone on record as supporting a robust peace keeping force for the Darfur region of the Sudan. What in your opinion does the US have as effective options to address these concerns?
We should lend our voice, our vote and support of multilateral institutions in the UN or OAU to fund an effective peace keeping force in Western and Southern Sudan. It has been a frustrating mission so far. The government of Sudan has not provided sufficient authority to protect the people, especially in Darfur. We have also seen the Sudanese government fund rebel forces which attack the neighboring country of Chad and are threatening to expand the genocide and killing by the Sudanese government. This is a tough question, because in my view we shouldn’t send US troops to the Sudan. We need to use coercion that might bring effective pressure on the Sudanese government. But right now it has been an utterly frustrating experience in establishing a UN peace keeping force that is then not allowed to keep the peace.
12. We have a mutual friend, Dr. Richard Benkin of Mount Prospect, in your district. You have made common cause with him to save the life of courageous Bangladeshi journalist Shoaib Choudhury who was arrested and tortured for attempting to travel to Israel in 2003. He is on trial for sedition, treason and blasphemy that are capital charges in Bangladesh. Why do you and others in Congress believe this is an important human rights matter and what can we do to save Choudhury's life?
Shoaib Choudhury is a Bangladeshi journalist who published a weekly newspaper that has advocated better relations between moderate Muslim countries and the people of Israel. He has been thrown in jail for the crime of attempting to travel to Israel to attend a journalist conference. He has experienced 17 months in jail including being beaten and tortured. Dr. Benkin became the most effective advocate and inspired me to get involved. I found the Bengladeshis were surprised that a US Congressman would get involved with Shoaib. I felt it was a travesty and he should be released. Through a long set of negotiations, including my becoming head of the Bangladesh caucus in the House, we did get Shoaib out of jail so that he could live with his family. Now he has been put on trial for his life for sedition. The legal wrangling has become a farce. A case that should never have come to trial imperils the future of his family. We can only resist these charges until he becomes free. Bangladesh has a very important election coming up. My hope is that a more moderate government will be elected. We have come to see the end of military rule in Pakistan. And so having the return of a more moderate government in Bangladesh could result in a good outcome ending Shoaib’s legal nightmare of being on trial for his life. We cannot lose focus on this very brave Muslim journalist thrown in jail because he wanted to have better relations with Israel.
13. The Iraq war is likely to be an issue in this fall’s elections. Do you see any imminent prospects for an exit given current US-Iraq Security Agreement negotiations?
Yes. Obviously things have gone much better in Iraq in the last year. Cities that dominated headlines a couple of years ago, Fallujah, Ramadi, and Najif are now among the quietest cities in the country. The government has increasingly gained control over Western and Southern Iraq and now faces the surprising problem of having so much oil revenue coming in that they having difficulty committing their contracting to ensure that the government is retaking operations. In my view, 85% of what’s left to do in Iraq is political in nature with regard to return of US combat troops. Using this progress it is time to bring the combat brigades out. There is less and less for us to do in Iraq. We should transition any remaining activity there to training and assistance to the democratically elected Iraqi government. Most importantly when we leave, we leave in a good way so that we don’t have to come back.
14. Is the ‘surge’ strategy that succeeded in Iraq applicable to the conflict in Afghanistan and neighboring areas of Pakistan against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces?
No. I have a different view than that of Senator Obama and Senator McCain regarding an Afghan surge. Foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have worn out their welcome. Iraq and Afghanistan are two countries of 25 million each. In my view that’s where the similarity ends. Afghanistan is a failed Narco-state with 95% of the world’s heroin and a majority of the world’s hashish. What we seen in other countries, especially in South America like Columbia where you see a Narco – State emerge you see terrorism thrive. The government of Mexico, for example, has very courageous President Calderon trying to prevent development of several Narco - States in his country. Afghanistan is 10 to 20 times worse than that. I’m very encouraged that the Columbian government would be providing technical assistance and expertise to the Afghan government. One of the under-reported developments has been the success of Columbian President Uribe against Narco funded terrorists. And that’s exactly what we face in Afghanistan. The action in Afghanistan should be against the Narco Taliban and al Qaeda. If you are to attack them then you have also to attack their sources of income to overwhelm them.
15. Given the Russian invasion of Georgia and the threat to the strategic Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, what can the US and our NATO allies do now to counter this threat from the Kremlin?
Of first importance is humanitarian relief for the Georgian people. I was very heartened to see a US air bridge created to ferry Georgian troops from Iraq to Georgia living up to the agreement that we have with them. We then created a second air bridge bringing humanitarian supplies to the people of Georgia. There was a great grumbling in Tblisi against this Russian occupation. I expressed my displeasure at the Government of Turkey which appeared to have denied permission for two US hospital ships to sail the Turkish straits and enter the Black Sea to help out the several hundred wounded people in Georgia as well as provide medical care to the refugee camps. Over the long haul, I think that the best thing that we can do is bolster other countries worried about Russia. The thing that we can do most urgently is to implement the Missile Defense Agreement between the Government of Poland and the United States. Poland used to be a member of the Warsaw Pact. Their government was very anxious to sign an agreement with the United States. The Russians have said no, but I am pleased that we have signed the agreement with Poland this week. This will benefit not just Georgia, but all the other small democracies bordering Russia.
Congressman Kirk, thank you for this fascinating and wide-ranging interview. All the best in your current re-election campaign.
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