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What We Will Lose When Tom Harkin Leaves the Senate

By       Message John Nichols     Permalink
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Harkin's first big fight on Capitol Hill, as a young congressman from a competitive district representing rural Iowa, was to demand that the entire thrust of U.S. foreign policy be altered.

As a young congressional aide in 1970, Harkin had played a critical role in exposing South Vietnam's abusive treatment of prisoners, who were held in so-called "tiger cages." Horrified by mounting evidence of U.S. support for right-wing coups, murderous dictators and torture states in southern Asia and Latin America, Harkin in 1975 proposed an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act that prohibited the United States from providing economic aid to any country determined to be engaged gross human rights violations unless. The only exception was a provision that permitted allocation of U.S. funds if could be proved that the money who directly benefit the most impoverished citizens.

The amendment, which passed with relative ease, became Section 116 of the Foreign Assistance Act, which declared that: "No assistance may be provided under this part to the government of any country which engages in consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person, unless such assistance will directly benefit the needy people in such country."

Presidents and their congressional allies invariably circumvented human rights responsibilities, to Harkin's great frustration. As a new U.S. Senator in the mid-1980s, he joined another new senator, John Kerry of Massachusetts, in seeking to expose and end the Reagan administration's support for right-wing dictators and death squads in Latin America. Others softened in their stances, but not Harkin. When Bush nominated Negroponte for the Iraqi ambassadorship, the senator from Iowa took to the floor of the chamber and recounted the dark history of the nominee's "service" as Ronald Reagan's administration gave lawless support to death squads and paramilitary murderers. Harkin accused the nominee of lying to Congress and the American people about circumstances on the ground in Honduras in the early 1980s -- where 184 people, including an American priest, "disappeared" while Negroponte was ambassador to Honduras.

"Ambassador Negroponte turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the human rights abuses in Honduras," Harkin thundered. "To send Mr. Negroponte to Iraq would send entirely the wrong message at this time."

For Tom Harkin, it was not enough to amend the laws of the land to defend human rights. It was necessary to hold to account those who circumvented those laws.

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It was a conscience call. A moral duty. And for Tom Harkin this has always been the point of being a senator.

For those of us who know Harkin, and his record, this is our source of regret at the news of his decision to retire. He has surely given a full measure of service. But his kind is rare, too rare, in a Congress that will be deeply diminished by his departure.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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