Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) catapulted herself into the progressive foreign policy debate this week by introducing a series of proposals that seek to shift the United States away from a more militaristic approach to one based on human rights, international law, and peacebuilding.
Dubbed a “Pathway to Peace,” Rep. Omar’s proposals focus on reconfiguring how the United States uses, or misuses in her estimation, sanctions as a foreign policy tool, in addition to provisions strengthening migrants rights and calling on the U.S. to join the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Criminal Court.
“Broadly, the package outlines a bold progressive vision to rethink the country’s approach to foreign policy by centering human rights, justice, and peace as the pillars of America’s engagement in the world, and making military action a last resort and prioritizing multilateralism and diplomacy over militarism,” Rep. Omar told Responsible Statecraft this week. “The plan takes into account the experiences of people directly affected by conflict and the long-term consequences of U.S. militarism, acknowledges the damage done when we fail to live up to international human rights standards and is sincere about our values regardless of short-term political convenience.”
See below for the full transcript of our conversation with Rep. Omar, which includes her explanation of how she plans to obtain buy-in, as well as how her plan isn’t just a response to Donald Trump, but also to decades-long bipartisan foreign policy consensus that has mired the United States in endless wars:
RESPONSIBLE STATECRAFT: After reading through the bills and resolutions you plan to introduce, the first thing that came to my mind was this notion of “the cruelty is the point,” which is a saying often used to describe Donald Trump’s policies on immigration, refugees, and asylum seekers. The idea is that what Trump has done so far is so cruel that the only logical conclusion is that cruelty to other human beings was part of the policy calculus.
My sense is that what you’re proposing is meant to be the antithesis of that, and of Trumpism writ-large. But there’s a lot in here that pre-dates the current administration. How much of this is in response to Trump specifically versus trying to tackle general failures in U.S. foreign policy over the last several decades?
REP. ILHAN OMAR (D-MINN.): It’s both. The problems of American militarism and under-investment in peace and diplomacy predate the Trump administration. The Iraq War came before Trump. Guantanamo came before Trump. The expansion of drone warfare came before Trump. It’s also true that this president has openly violated any semblance of respect for international law, multilateralism or human rights.
But with any challenge comes opportunity. We must seize the current moment to pursue a foreign policy that actually lives up to the values we espoused before Trump.
RS: I want to turn to your proposals to amend the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. As we know, Donald Trump’s re-imposition of crushing sanctions on Iran have led to Iranian civilians experiencing severe food and medicine shortages, among other hardships, while at the same time increasing tensions between Iran and the U.S.
But it’s not just Iran and, again, it’s not just Donald Trump. As you yourself have noted previously, the United States has too often used sanctions as a foreign policy tool without much thought about wider strategy or their negative consequences on civilian populations. But you have also cited examples of how sanctions have been properly utilized, for example in cases covered by the Global Magnitsky Act and the boycott and divestment campaign against apartheid in South Africa.
How will your proposal thread this needle? And how will you work to convince those who have supported counterproductive sanctions regimes to rethink how we apply these practices?
REP. OMAR: I’m glad you asked, because it’s an important distinction. As I’ve written, I adamantly oppose any state sanctions that collectively punish an entire population. My bill is aimed at providing more oversight on this. Whether it’s sanctions that cause medical shortages or cut off economic aid — our sanctions should never be aimed at the citizenry of a country.
As I’ve also written, this does not mean that no sanctions should ever be used. The Global Magnitsky Act is a critical tool in holding specific officials accountable for human rights abuses. I’ve cosponsored multiple bills on this — and authored my own legislation to hold the Sultanate of Brunei accountable for their brutal penal code. And it’s important that we support civil society movements, like the South Africa divestment campaign, that hold governments accountable for human rights abuses.
You don’t have to agree with every detail of a movement to support their advocacy rights. And you don’t have to agree with me about the use of sanctions in order to support the Congressional Oversight of Sanctions Act. The bill is about restraining executive powers, restoring Congress’s Constitutional authority, and making sure we’re making informed decisions.
We’re having this conversation about executive powers when it comes to AUMFs and domestic national emergencies, and we should be having it about sanctions too.
RS: I think we agree that U.S. foreign policy is way over-militarized. During a recent panel hosted by Democracy Now, you referenced the measures you plan to introduce as, quote, “a pathway to peace” and “a new way of reimagining a vision of what our foreign policy should be.” You also referenced how this vision can combat militaristic U.S. foreign policy. I’m wondering if you can explain a bit more about how you envision what you’re proposing will serve as a sort of antidote to militarism?
REP. OMAR: Broadly, the package outlines a bold progressive vision to rethink the country’s approach to foreign policy by centering human rights, justice, and peace as the pillars of America’s engagement in the world, and making military action a last resort and prioritizing multilateralism and diplomacy over militarism. The plan takes into account the experiences of people directly affected by conflict and the long-term consequences of U.S. militarism, acknowledges the damage done when we fail to live up to international human rights standards and is sincere about our values regardless of short-term political convenience.
For example, we transfer $5 billion from the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations budget to the State Department to create a new, multilateral Global Peacebuilding Fund and institute red lines for military aid if a country commits grave human rights abuses. We also require the State Department to work with countries that cross those red lines toward transitional justice for the victims of their abuses. Our militarization of foreign policy isn’t only the use of our military — it’s also our support for the militaries of dictatorships and human rights abusers around the world. My package proposes to rethink our “interests” as being partnerships with the people of the country, and siding with the victims.
RS: I am the managing editor of Responsible Statecraft, which is the publishing platform of the Quincy Institute. And the Quincy Institute in part seeks to upend the norms of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Washington that tends to turn toward over use of sanctions and military-first approaches to U.S. foreign policy. The problem is that this mindset is deeply entrenched in policy and political debates and oftentimes perpetuated by mainstream media. So I think in short, the headwinds against what you, and indeed the Quincy Institute, are working toward are quite strong. How can we normalize diplomacy and restraint as the primary motivating concepts of U.S. foreign policy in this kind of environment and how can these ideas garner support from both sides of the aisle?
REP. OMAR: We must have the confidence that our mission is just and that the country supports us. The American people are fed up with endless war. The American people don’t want more than half of our discretionary spending going to a bloated Pentagon budget — instead of human needs like healthcare and housing. Now more than ever, there is room for a new consensus — one that rejects the warmongering and militarism of the past and looks toward a more hopeful, peaceful world.