Since I began my first term in Congress, I have sought to speak openly and honestly about the scale of the issues our country faces — whether it is ending the crippling burden of student debt, tackling the existential threat of climate change or making sure no one in one of the richest countries in the world dies from lack of health care. As a survivor of war and a refugee, I have also sought to have an honest conversation about U.S. foreign policy, militarism and our role in the world.
This question of how the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
I saw firsthand the devastating toll of war. And I dreamed of one day coming to the United States of America — a land that promised peace and opportunity regardless of one’s faith or ethnicity. But I also saw how America’s image in the world is undermined when we don’t live up to those values. And I witnessed how our continuous involvement in foreign conflicts — even those undertaken with the best of intentions — can damage our own reputation abroad.
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 U.S. to keep our country safe.
Valuing human rights also means applying the same standards to our friends and our enemies. We do not have the credibility to support those fighting for human rights in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua if we do not also support those fighting for human rights in Honduras, Guatemala and Brazil. Our criticisms of oppression and regional instability caused by Iran are not legitimate if we do not hold Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to the same standards.
And we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to repression in Saudi Arabia — a country that is consistently ranked among the worst of the worst human rights offenders. Whether it is the killing of dissenters such as Jamal Khashoggi or war crimes against civilian populations in Yemen, we must hold all of our allies to the same international standards as our enemies.
This vision also applies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. U.S. support for Israel has a long history. The founding of Israel 70 years ago was built on the Jewish people’s connection to their historical homeland, as well as the urgency of establishing a nation in the wake of the horror of the Holocaust and the centuries of anti-Semitic oppression leading up to it. Many of the founders of Israel were themselves refugees who survived indescribable horrors.
We must acknowledge that this is also the historical homeland of Palestinians. And without a state, the Palestinian people live in a state of permanent refugeehood and displacement. This, too, is a refugee crisis, and they, too, deserve freedom and dignity.
A balanced, inclusive approach to the conflict recognizes the shared desire for security and freedom of both peoples. I support a two-state solution, with internationally recognized borders, which allows for both Israelis and Palestinians to have their own sanctuaries and self-determination. This has been official bipartisan U.S. policy across two decades and has been supported by each of the most recent Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as well as the consensus of the Israeli security establishment. As Jim Mattis, who later was President Donald Trump’s defense secretary, said in 2011, “The current situation between those two peoples is unsustainable.”
Working toward peace in the region also means holding everyone involved accountable for actions that undermine the path to peace — because without justice, there can never be a lasting peace. When I criticize certain Israeli government actions in Gaza or settlements in the West Bank, it is because I believe these actions not only threaten the possibility of peace in the region — they also threaten the United States’ own national security interests.
My goal in speaking out at all times has been to encourage both sides to move toward a peaceful two-state solution. We need to reinsert this call back into the public debate with urgency. Both parties must come to the table for a final peace deal; violence will not bring us any closer to that day.
Peace and respect for human rights: These are universal values. They are what drove Americans to organize and protest for equal rights and civil rights. They are what motivated nonviolent movements from South Africa to South Asia to the American South. These are the values that propelled me to get involved in public life, and I know they are the values that drove Minnesotans to give a Somali-American refugee a chance at representing them in Congress.
Let us apply these universal values to all nations. Only then will our world achieve peace.
Ilhan Omar, a Democrat, represents Minnesota’s Fifth District in the U.S. House. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.