Who we think about when we think about foreign policy

It may not always seem this way, but foreign policy should be about people. Which people it’s about, determines what our foreign policy is.

When our foreign policy revolves around powerful people representing enormous business interests, it takes on a particular form. When it’s focused on relatively powerless everyday people across the world, it takes on a different form.

When I think about foreign policy, I try to focus on people without much power. I work to identify with those who find themselves buffeted by enormous forces outside of their control. Perhaps it is a bit easier for me because I am a first-generation immigrant. When I see pictures of people in the Middle East killed by bombs or bullets made in the US, I think of my own family. It is inescapable, because they look like me and my kids.

So when one of those kids grows up to become an American legislator, when she begins to exercise some influence over US foreign policy, I am both proud of my country, and grow more confident that we will be centering the right people when it comes to our foreign policy. 

This is one of the reasons having Rep. Ilhan Omar in Congress is so remarkable. She is one of these people, a child whose life was buffeted by war, and now she is in a position to influence US foreign policy. Rep. Omar wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post today that expresses my sentiment perfectly: 

Ilhan Omar: We must apply our universal values to all nations. Only then will we achieve peace.

[…] I believe in an inclusive foreign policy — one that centers on human rights, justice and peace as the pillars of America’s engagement in the world, one that brings our troops home and truly makes military action a last resort. This is a vision that centers on the experiences of the people directly affected by conflict, that takes into account the long-term effects of U.S. engagement in war and that is sincere about our values regardless of short-term political convenience.

This means reorienting our foreign affairs to focus on diplomacy and economic and cultural engagement. At a time when we spend more on our military than the next seven countries combined, our global armed presence is often the most immediate contact people in the developing world have with the United States. National security experts across the political spectrum agree that we don’t need nearly 800 military bases outside the United States to keep our country safe. — www.washingtonpost.com/…

In her Op-Ed, Rep. Omar goes on to highlight the disastrous regimes we are presently supporting, including the Saudis and the UAE who are waging a terrible war on the Yemeni people.

It has historically been difficult to get Americans to concern themselves with foreign policy. We are a large, continental power with enormous considerations within our borders. We also have a strong isolationist streak, most years a majority of Americans say we should pay less attention to problems overseas. Sadly, this public disengagement often means that unelected interests exercise greater control over our actual foreign policy, resulting in even more military adventures.

For others among us, foreign policy is secondary. We’ve all run across people who believe foreign affairs are a distraction from “other priorities”, like “winning”. If questioning the actions of our military overseas becomes a hinderance to “winning”, the implication is that we should accommodate militarism and little wars. This is a narrow vision, where concern for people ends at our borders, or when it might complicate our short-term political ends. It fails to offer solidarity to the rest of the world.

The sad fact is that this sort of near-sightedness is both misguided and dangerous.

Every dollar we spend on destruction overseas is a dollar stolen from progressive initiatives at home.

Every time our military might is flaunted or deployed to protect the interests of oil interests, we harm the climate.

Every time the agenda of the Military Industrial Complex gets a pass because it only impacts people “over there”, our military families face greater risk and gun control at home becomes more distant.

Every time a corrupt plutocrat like Erik Prince, Dick Cheney or Jared Kushner uses American power to serve a foreign despot, the interests of ordinary people suffer. The plutocrat receives favors, the price is paid by people like us across the world.

We are the pre-eminent super-power in the world. We have military bases across the world. In 2017, US special operations troops deployed in over 130 countries. Every day, our military runs a global aerial bombardment that has cost tens of thousands of lives directly and hundreds of thousands by extension. This is not an exaggeration. Investigative journalists have confirmed almost 7,000 drone strikes.

Many of these strikes have been in Somalia, where Rep. Omar was born. The US has engaged in military operations in Somalia since the early 1990s, after the overthrow of Mohammed Siad Barre which precipitated the Somali Civil War. Rep. Omar’s family is among those uprooted by that war. This makes her a powerful and credible spokesperson for all the people directly and indirectly impacted by our militarist foreign policies and her journey all the more significant. 

This question of how the United States engages in conflict abroad is deeply personal to me. I fled my home country of Somalia when I was 8 years old from a conflict that the United States later engaged in. I spent the next four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, where I experienced and witnessed unspeakable suffering from those who, like me, had lost everything because of war. — www.washingtonpost.com/…

When we think of foreign policy, we must keep the interests of people like the 8-year old Ilhan Omar foremost. We must think of her well-being, and her future. We must think of what she can become, and what she can do for her community and the world.

We must not allow ourselves to be beguiled by those seeking to prop up illegitimate regimes, or stoke war for selfish ends. If we allow our foreign policy to be driven by the Dick Cheneys, Erik Princes and Jared Kushners of the world, we will have done this world and generations to come a great wrong.

If we allow these interests to govern how we interact with the world, eventually our own democracy will atrophy and we too will succumb to the same predatory forces that have brought harm and ruin upon large swaths of the world. To avoid such an outcome, we as citizens need to consciously consider who we think about when we think about foreign policy. Think about 8-year old Ilhan Omar.

— @subirgrewal