Rep. Ilhan Omar has a knack for making a burden of herself. In her short time in federal office, the freshman congresswoman is best known for making anti-Semitic remarks, forcing her colleagues to sacrifice time and reputation in the process of defending her from the consequences of her own behaviors. Tired of limiting her nuisance to domestic affairs alone, Omar is taking the act global.
Despite becoming embroiled in more anti-Semitism scandals than can be attributed to luck alone, Rep. Omar maintains a perch on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. That platform provides her with the power to shape U.S. foreign policy, and she plans to use that authority to codify her fanatical and novitiate understanding of American foreign affairs into a doctrine.
“When I think about foreign policy,” Omar recently told the Star Tribune, “we need something equivalent to the Green New Deal.” Woe unto Democrats. If Omar’s foreign-policy makeover is anything like the Green New Deal, it will be a source of almost unmitigated humiliation that exposes the Democratic Party’s radicalism while derailing its governing agenda.
Conspicuously, Omar’s prohibitive fixation—what she views as America’s hidebound alliance with Israel—does not feature prominently in her plans for a foreign-policy makeover. Given the popularity of that alliance, disguising her objectives is a smart move. It’s the kind of acumen you’d expect from someone savvy enough to gloss over her support for the cosmetically anti-Zionist but functionally anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement until after she was elected.
Omar’s central animating principle is the desire to see American foreign policy emphasize soft (diplomatic and economic) power over hard (military) power. While neither revolutionary nor entirely objectionable, the way she would go about realizing her vision suggests some conceptual flaws.
Omar singled out Brunei, a tiny sultanate in the South China Sea, for special opprobrium. That country’s new laws criminalizing homosexuality and sanctioning corporal punishment for marital infidelity have been roundly criticized. Omar recently proposed legislation that would sanction Bruneian officials and deny them entry visas into the United States. “I think it was important for us to go beyond the normal resolutions people will do here,” she congratulated herself. But this is hardly a departure from past practice.
In the last 12 months alone, the U.S. has imposed sanctions and travel restrictions on officials from nominal U.S. allies like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, to say nothing of adversaries like Venezuela, Iran, Russia, Burma, and Cuba. It’s one of the most commonly used tools in the diplomatic toolshed. Considering that bilateral trade with Brunei totaled a measly $208 million in 2017, the likelihood that American voters would feel any pain as a result is exceedingly slim.
But Omar’s goals may be out of reach for her in part because she rejects the kind of statecraft that would be necessary to see them through. The congresswoman could have a powerful Republican ally in Sen. Ted Cruz, who also voiced his antipathy toward Bruneian morality laws. Omar all but rejected his support. “I don’t think he’s driven my interests of furthering human rights,” Omar said of Cruz. “I think he’s got a more sinister agenda.” It’s unclear precisely what Machiavellian double game Ted Cruz is playing in Southeast Asia, but Omar’s grudging willingness only to “have a conversation” with a potential ally she has outright accused of duplicity suggests that punishing Brunei isn’t the burning moral imperative she claims it to be.
By prioritizing her domestic political grudges over the rights of righteously aggrieved Bruneians, Omar has exposed the flaw of any doctrine predicated on humanitarian principles alone. The dirty secret of foreign affairs is that violations of human rights are prosecuted only when the costs for doing so are minimal and their pursuit advances other more tangible national interests. There is little consistency in a human rights-based foreign policy. It is fortunate, then, that Omar has no interest in consistency.
Omar insists that the hardship, want, and bloodshed in Venezuela over the course of this decade followed America’s punitive sanctions on regime officials, not the other way around. Her claim that the U.S. imposed interim President Juan Guaido on the Venezuelan people, not that the powers of the presidency devolved to him in accordance with the country’s constitution, is reflective of a deeper American chauvinism than the kind she denounces in her domestic political opponents.
Omar appears similarly predisposed to reverse the relationship between cause and effect when it comes to tensions with Iran. “We should be looking at de-escalation tactics above all else,” Omar recently wrote. She added: “The same people who falsified intelligence before the Iraq War are now beating the drums for war with Iran.” Ignore for the time being that no serious person with a cogent understanding of pre-Iraq War intelligence would contend that information presented to the public or Congress was “falsified,” Omar’s claim that America is inviting aggression, not responding to it, is absurd.
Last week, the Pentagon accused the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps of executing a sophisticated attack on several foreign vessels including two Saudi oil tankers—a move that followed Washington’s decision to designate the group a terrorist threat, opening it up to economic sanctions. Conspiracy theorists might dismiss this claim as more “falsified” evidence by corrupt jingoists in Washington, but such behavior is hardly out of character for the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Glaring cognitive dissonance is likely no obstacle to someone who equated the efforts of Israeli Defense Forces to subdue violent protesters with Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilian population centers.
“Omar has ambitions for nothing less than a comprehensive reset of U.S. foreign policy,” the Star Tribune report closed. In these words, there is hope. Such a project would likely work out as well as the last time a president sought to execute a “reset” in relations with a foreign adversary. A nation’s interests are not willed into or out of existence by executive fiat or even legislation. Barack Obama thought Russia was reactionary, not revanchist, and he believed that a more delicate touch would lead Moscow to abandon its claims on the European territories it had coveted since Alexander I. That was pride, not statecraft, and Omar’s ambitions are rooted in a similar misunderstanding of the affairs of state.
It may be cold comfort that Omar’s morally compromised ambitions are likely to be frustrated by her own incompetence, but it’s a comfort nonetheless.