When Ilhan Omar Asks Questions, Her Colleagues Should Listen
House Republicans are poised to make a grave mistake by removing from the Committee on Foreign Affairs the only person who consistently describes American foreign policy as it is experienced by much of the rest of the world.
Those behind the effort to remove Ilhan Omar claim that she’s bigoted against Jews. Her Democratic defenders counter that the real bigots are those Republicans seeking to oust a Black Muslim woman. Yet neither side is talking much about what Ms. Omar has actually done on the committee from which she may soon be removed. That’s too bad. Because what Ms. Omar has done is extraordinary.
In 2021, the Alliance of Democracies Foundation asked 50,000 people in 53 countries which global power they thought most threatened democracy in their nation. The United States came in first. Judging by their public statements, most members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee think these non-Americans are certifiably insane. The committee’s Republicans and Democrats both largely take it for granted that the United States — despite occasional blunders — defends liberty. When discussing threats to human rights, they generally attribute them to America’s foes. Ms. Omar is the exception.
Consider what transpired at a hearing last April about American strategy in Asia. Michael McCaul, a Republican who is now the committee’s chairman, declared that “Americans’ legacy in the Indo-Pacific is freedom and prosperity” — and then warned that China’s Communist Party threatens it. Ted Deutch a Democrat, told the witness, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, that it was a “premise that I think we all share” that “human rights needs to be front and center in our foreign policy.” Having applauded the Biden administration and his fellow committee members for their devotion to human rights, Mr. Deutch asked about China’s repression in Xinjiang and its arms sales in the Middle East.
When Ms. Omar’s turn came, the self-congratulation abruptly stopped. She began by noting that during America’s last Cold War, the country supported “brutal dictators” like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Indonesia’s Suharto because they shared “a common enemy.” She then asked Ms. Sherman why her administration was making Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India “our new Pinochet.” Ms. Omar’s colleagues discussed India primarily as a potential bulwark against China and Russia. Only Ms. Omar spoke about American complicity in the repression of minority groups in India. “How much does the Modi administration have to criminalize the act of being Muslim in India,” she asked, “for us to say something?”
This pattern has repeated itself again and again in the four years since Ms. Omar entered Congress. The 50 other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee piously condemn the misdeeds of America’s foes. She asks uncomfortable questions about America’s own. In a hearing in May 2021, about Chinese atrocities against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, only Ms. Omar noted that the United States had itself imprisoned 22 Uyghurs at Guantánamo Bay and that China’s president had reportedly cited America’s “war on terror” as a justification for his own crackdown. A witness who leads the Uyghur Human Rights Project concurred that America’s actions had “paved the way for this comfortable labeling Uyghurs as a terrorist” group by Beijing.
In a 2020 subcommittee hearing on “Democratic Backsliding in sub-Saharan Africa,” Republican Representative Tim Burchett expressed outrage that “some of the officers who took part in the Mali coup d’état had recently returned from Russia.” Only Ms. Omar noted that according to The Washington Post, the coup’s leader, Col. Assimi Goita, had for years fought alongside U.S. Special Forces. Under her questioning, a witness from the U.S.-government-funded National Democratic Institute admitted that the “gross violations of human rights” he denounced in Cameroon were partly committed by troops armed by the United States.
Last February, in a committee hearing on Latin America, Ms. Omar asked Todd Robinson, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, about an inspectors general investigation that found that his agency had covered up its involvement in a 2012 massacre of four Indigenous Hondurans. Despite working at the agency in 2012, Mr. Robinson said he didn’t recall what he had told investigators. He didn’t know if any of the Americans and Hondurans charged in the massacre had been convicted. He didn’t know if any of the victims had received compensation. Why was Mr. Robinson so unprepared for Ms. Omar’s line of inquiry? Perhaps because committee members rarely ask government officials such pointed questions about violations of human rights committed by the United States and its friends.
Ms. Omar’s detractors might say all this reflects her anti-Americanism. They’re wrong. Ms. Omar speaks idealistically about “the moral authority the United States carries on the world stage when we stand up for human rights.” She just recognizes — as do many across the globe — that the United States doesn’t exercise that moral authority nearly as often as our leaders claim.
She doesn’t oppose an active U.S. foreign policy. She opposes the myth — which frames so much official discourse in Washington — that American foreign policy is intrinsically moral. “We are human beings like other human beings on this planet,” she wrote in 2021, “with the same flaws and the same ambitions and the same fragilities.”
Across the world, many people encounter American foreign policy when they see a drone flying overhead, a hospital that U.S. sanctions have deprived of medicine or a dictator’s troops carrying American-made guns. Ms. Omar asks the kinds of questions that these non-Americans — whether they reside in Pakistan, Cuba or Cameroon — might ask were they seated across from the officials who direct America’s awesome power. She translates between Washington and the outside world.
More often than not, she does so alone.
Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart) is a professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He is also editor at large of Jewish Currents and writes The Beinart Notebook, a weekly newsletter.
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