US Rep. Nick Rahall's policy pronouncements tend toward announcements about extending water and sewer service in southern West Virginia, or the erection of safety barriers on dangerous stretches of Interstate 64. So much of official Washington was caught by surprise when the West Virginia Democrat appeared before the Iraqi Assembly Sunday "as a member of Congress concerned with peace" and declared, "Basically, I want America and Iraq to give peace a chance."
"Instead of assuming that war must come, let us find ways to discover how to prove that war is unnecessary," Rahall told the Iraqis. "It is time and, in my opinion, far past time that American andIraqi officials talk to each other without threats."
Rahall's trip to Baghdad, which followed President Bush's saber-rattling address to the United Nations General Assembly, drew international attention to a congressman who has spent most of his quarter century on Capitol Hill securing funding for road projects and mine safety initiatives. Unlike Bush, however, Rahall is no newcomer to Middle East affairs.
The grandson and namesake of a Lebanese immigrant who in 1903 settled in Beckley, West Virginia, Rahall approaches debates over Middle East policy from a unique perspective in a Congress with only a handful of Arab-American members. Proud of his ethnicity, Rahall frequently quotes a line from Lebanese-American entertainer Danny Thomas: "He who denies his heritage has no heritage."
Rahall has been a frequent visitor to Lebanon, Israel and other Middle Eastern nations -- traveling as a member of Congressional delegations and on his own to his grandfather's hometown of Kfier, Lebanon. A graduate of Duke University who earned his political spurs as an aide to legendary West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, Rahall has quietly developed a level of expertise on Middle East issues that few members of Congress can rival.
Rahall has frequently parted company with the overwhelming majority of his colleagues on those issues. In 1993, for instance, the House considered a resolution declaring that "the Arab boycott of Israel is detrimental to the peace process in the Middle East and should be discontinued forthwith." It passed, by a margin of 425-1.
More recently, the West Virginia Democrat was one of 11 House members to oppose a December 2001, resolution expressing solidarity with Israel. In May, when the House voted on a resolution that praised Israel's fight against terrorism while placing blame for violence in the region on Palestinian leaders, Rahall cast one of just 21 "no" votes.
While Rahall's votes may look controversial to national observers, they have caused him little grief in West Virginia, where he is regularly reelected with little or no opposition. The congressman is known for maintaining good relations – and an open dialogue -- with both Arab-American and Jewish constituents. Additionally, Rahall's voting record on Middle East issues tends to parallel that of his old boss, Senator Byrd. And, like Byrd, he devotes so much time and energy to bringing infrastructure projects to southern West Virginia that foreign policy issues are rarely part of the homestate debate.
Rahall has won high marks even from those who disagree with him for his expertise and for his attention to humanitarian issues that are often lost in Middle East policy debates. A thoughtful critic of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's actions, Rahall voted in favor of the 1991 Congressional resolution supporting the Persian Gulf War. In the years since, however, he has been in the forefront of questioning the wisdom of US policies toward Iraq.
Rahall signed the letter, initiated by Representatives Tom Campbell (R-CA) and John Conyers (D-MI), that, for humanitarian reasons, called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Iraq. Last week, Rahall cited similar concerns, saying he has decided to travel to Baghdad to "help illuminate the plight of the Iraqi people."
"I'm not going as Secretary of State. I'm not going as a weapons inspector. I'm going as an individual who'd like to cool this rhetoric and act in a calm matter, and show the Iraqi people that the American people are not warmongers," he said on the eve of the trip to Iraq, which he took in the company of former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk. (Rahall and Abourezk made the trip as part of a delegation organized by the Institute for Public Accuracy.)
Rahall said he also was making the trip because of his doubts about whether the Bush administration has made a case for waging war against Iraq at this time.
"Why now, two months before an election? Why was the threat so serious now that it wasn't a year ago. I've seen certainly no link of Iraq to 9/11," Rahall said. "I just don't see a linkage there."