Washington – U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar has aggressively pursued a foreign policy legacy in her first five months in office, drawing sharp blowback from the Trump administration as she seeks to be a prominent voice on world affairs.
The Somali-born Minnesota Democrat, saying she brings "the perspective of a foreigner" to her new role, believes that American foreign policy needs to be changed in fundamental ways.
"When I think about foreign policy, we need something equivalent to the Green New Deal," Omar said in an interview, drawing a parallel to the sweeping climate change plan from New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another high-profile member of the Democratic freshman class of 2018.
From her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and with a growing international reputation, the former refugee is wading into debates over various global hot spots and controversies — turmoil in Venezuela, a brutal penal code in Brunei, U.S. tensions with Iran. Already accustomed to controversy thanks to comments critical of Israel's political influence, which prompted rebukes from many fellow Democrats, Omar has ambitions for nothing less than a comprehensive reset of U.S. foreign policy.
"It's important for me to think about what an overhaul of our foreign policy should look like from the standpoint of really thinking how it impacts those around the world, and where our values intersect with what's happening," Omar said. "We spend a lot of money in engaging unwinnable wars, and I don't think it matches with the values of trying to create prosperity in the United States."
Earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence said in a Fox News interview that Omar "doesn't know what she's talking about" following her criticism of the administration's hawkish stance on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. That echoed similar hits from President Donald Trump and other Republicans for remarks she made that they felt minimized the 9/11 terror attacks, a controversy that sparked death threats against Omar.
As she works to make her own imprint on U.S. foreign policy, Omar may have to forge common purpose with some of the same domestic political adversaries with whom she previously sparred.
"Relative to domestic policy issues, foreign policy tends to be an area where there is bipartisanship," said Colin McElhinny, associate director of the congressional and government affairs team at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
A test of that is shaping up with a House bill Omar proposed this month. Her legislation would hold the tiny, wealthy country of Brunei accountable for a newly instated penal code that, according to Human Rights Watch, "requires death by stoning for extramarital sex and anal sex; amputation of limbs for stealing; and 40 lashes with a whip for lesbian sex. Abortion is also criminalized."
Omar's legislation would bar any official of the Muslim-majority southeast Asian nation who's responsible for implementing the penal code from traveling to or doing business with the United States. "I think it was important for us to go beyond the normal resolutions people will do here," Omar said. She's lined up 13 House cosponsors, so far all Democrats.
Another congressional critic of Brunei's code, which was implemented by the country's sultan, is Sen. Ted Cruz. Human rights advocates said the Texas Republican is working on legislation similar to what Omar has proposed. "Brunei's laws criminalizing homosexuality — and imposing capital punishment — are immoral, barbaric & inhumane," Cruz tweeted in March.
Cruz has been publicly critical of Omar, calling her a member of the "anti-Semitic left" on Twitter recently. Asked if she could team with Cruz on the Brunei effort, Omar criticized him harshly — but didn't rule it out.
"The sort of perspective and lens that I have is very much different than the perspective and lens that drives someone like Ted Cruz. I don't think he's driven by interests of furthering human rights. I think he's got a more sinister agenda," Omar said. "But there are issues around foreign policy that are nonpartisan, bipartisan issues, and some that aren't. I think for me, I'm willing to have a conversation and work with anyone to find a compromise."
Cruz's office provided this statement from a spokesman: "One of the things you learn when you spend more than a few months in Congress is that very often people do the same things for different reasons. Sen. Cruz looks forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to hold Brunei's leaders accountable if they move forward with these horrifying measures."
John Sifton is the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, a New York City-based nongovernmental organization that researches and advocates for human rights around the world. He's been working with both Omar's and Cruz's offices and said he sees similar good motives.
"Here we have a situation where Ilhan Omar and Ted Cruz agree on something," Sifton said. "This should be a reason for Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell to realize that it's worthwhile," he added, referring to the House and Senate leaders.
There's nothing new about members of Congress engaging in world affairs. But like anything in an institution made up of 535 individual members, partnerships are key. "Your ability to build coalitions is really important," said McElhinny, the congressional scholar.
Pence and Trump have both called for Omar to be removed from the Foreign Affairs Committee, which has become a rallying cry for her critics. A group of New York activists held a rally in Times Square this month to debut their "Coalition to Get Ilhan Omar Off the House Foreign Affairs Committee."
"For me, this has nothing to do with Omar's religion, it has nothing to do with her race, it has nothing to do with her country of origin. It's all about the vile things that come out of her mouth," said rally organizer Joe Diamond, a political activist and strong supporter of Israel.
The Foreign Affairs chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, was publicly critical of several of Omar's statements about the U.S. and Israel earlier this year. The uproar started with an Omar tweet suggesting that U.S. political support for Israel was "all about the Benjamins," a reference to $100 bills. A subsequent remark about Israel was seen by some Jews as an evocation of past accusations of dual loyalty to the U.S. and Israel — an interpretation Omar said she did not intend. The controversy ended with a House resolution condemning bigotry, including anti-Semitism, but it did not specifically name Omar.
Engel's office did not respond to a request for an interview. Omar remains on the panel, where she's been broadening her portfolio.
Last week, she signed on as cosponsor of a measure from House Democrats "to clarify that Congress has not provided authorization for the use of military force against Iran" — a response to U.S.-Iran tensions which have heightened in recent weeks.
"There really isn't a gain in entering another unwinnable war that will destabilize the Middle East and will become a burden for us here economically, and will further lead to not only deaths of American soldiers and deaths for Iranians," Omar said in her interview.
She also discussed her views on Venezuela, following previous remarks in which she characterized the U.S. backing of opposition leader Juan Guaido.
"The recognition of who should be the president of a country should always be reserved for the people of that country," Omar said. "Regardless of what I think might be happening in a country, we don't get to pick a leader for them."
As Omar considers how a Green New Deal-style approach might be brought to reshaping U.S. foreign policy, she leans on her own background. The first Somali-American in Congress, the one-time inhabitant of a refugee camp described herself "as someone who has seen the United States from the perspective of a foreigner." She'd like to see a vastly downscaled U.S. military presence around the world, and much less direct intervention in the domestic politics of other countries.
"Our focus should be on diplomacy, in cultural and economic exchange," Omar said. "I think we are seen as a leader, and we have an opportunity for people to follow if we are leading with moral conviction."