Elizabeth Warren Can and Should Do Better on Foreign Policy
Elizabeth Warren is pushing things in a progressive direction on the domestic front. But she's far too wedded to US imperialism abroad.
Massachusetts Senator and 2020 presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has been widely celebrated in liberal and left-leaning press for churning out progressive policy proposals on the domestic front, from child care to housing. Articles have hailed her as the “intellectual powerhouse of the Democratic party,” the person who “has the plans,” and the “progressive policy anchor in the 2020 field.” One Guardian piece from late February asks, “Why vote for Sanders when you can have Elizabeth Warren instead?”
Yet none of these articles take a close look at Warren’s track record on war and militarism, despite the fact that the realm of foreign policy is where presidents have the most power to act without Congress (thanks in part to Obama’s unfortunate expansion of presidential powers to make war). It’s as though the United States existed in a vacuum, with only domestic matters to attend to; in reality, we are the biggest military empire in human history, with eight hundred military bases around the world and US commandos deployed to 75 percent of countries.
Once Warren’s foreign policy record is scrutinized, her status as a progressive champion starts to wither. While Warren is not on the far right of Democratic politics on war and peace, she also is not a progressive — nor a leader — and has failed to use her powerful position on the Senate Armed Services Committee to challenge the status quo.
While she’s voted for military de-escalation on some issues, including ending the Yemen War, she’s gone along with some of the most belligerent acts that have occurred under her watch, cheerleading Israel’s devastating 2014 war on Gaza and vocalizing her support for sanctions against Venezuela. Even judged according to the spectrum of today’s Democratic Party, which is skewed so far to the right on war and militarism it does not take much to distinguish oneself, Warren gets an unsatisfactory grade: not the last in her class, but far from first.
We are on the eve of a possible US invasion of Venezuela, with the US halting all cargo and passenger flights to the country, and US-backed opposition figure Juan Guaidó calling on the US military for direct coordination. Amid this climate, Warren has drifted rightward even from a few months ago, failing to forcefully challenge bipartisan support — including from 2020 hopeful Joe Biden — for the attempted coup.
In January, Warren told the Huffington Post she opposes sanctions and intervention, while criticizing the government of Nicolás Maduro. “The Venezuelan people deserve free and fair elections, an economy that works, and the ability to live without fear of violence from their own government,” she said. “Instead of reckless threats of military action or sanctions that hurt those in need, we should be taking real steps to support the Venezuelan people.”
But by the time she spoke on the podcast Pod Save America on February 21, she had changed her tune on sanctions. “I support economic sanctions but now we’re gonna start, we’ve got to turn the dial some here we have to offer humanitarian help at the same time.”
According to a study by economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, sanctions are estimated to have killed forty thousand people from 2017 to 2018. These sanctions, they write, would “fit the definition of collective punishment of the civilian population as described in both the Geneva and Hague international conventions.”
Perhaps more importantly, Warren has so far declined to co-sponsor SJ Res. 11, known as the “Prohibiting Unauthorized Military Action in Venezuela Resolution of 2019.” [Update: Following publication of this article, Warren signed on as a cosponsor of S.J.Res.11.] This bill would ban “department or agency funding from being used to introduce armed forces into hostilities with Venezuela, except pursuant to a specific statutory authorization by Congress enacted after this joint resolution.” In contrast to Warren, fellow presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–VT) is cosponsoring the resolution. And like Warren, Sens Cory Booker (D–NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D–NY) and Kamala Harris (D–CA) are not cosponsoring.
Polling shows that the 51 million residents of South Korea overwhelmingly want the sixty-eight-year Korean War — to which the United States is still officially party — to come to an end. Yet, Warren has given numerous hawkish public quotes slamming Trump for those instances where he has supported the peace process. She is part of a larger trend in which Democrats have attacked Trump from the right on this issue, infuriating Korean peace activists.
In a June 2018 statement about the United States-North Korea summit, Warren said, “Yesterday’s photo op doesn’t change the fact that a nuclear-armed North Korea is a threat to the security of the United States, our allies, and the world. Generations of North Korean leaders have made and broken promises before — this Administration’s success will be judged on whether it can eliminate Kim’s nuclear weapons and verify they are gone.”
And in March 2018, Warren indicated that Trump — a president who has casually threatened “to totally destroy North Korea,” should be more aggressive: “I’m very worried that Donald Trump will go into these negotiations and Kim Jong-un will simply take advantage of him.”
Comments like these were a blow to Korean peace movements, which have long argued that, to make the world safer, it is necessary to embrace peace talks to end the Korean war. Christine Ahn, a South Korea-born, Hawai‘i-based peace activist has been organizing to end the Korean war under the administrations of Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, told me in June 2018 that liberal fear-mongering about the North was incredibly unhelpful.
“It is very dangerous to pressure Trump to be hardline,” says Ahn. “We have to put all of our efforts into ensuring this goes well and is not undermined.”
“This is about ending a seven-decade war with a country the United States has been at war with. The United States has been an obstacle to peace for Korea and was responsible for dividing the peninsula,” Ahn says.
In contrast to Warren, Sanders released a statement June 12 praising the Singapore summit as “a positive step in de-escalating tensions between our countries, addressing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and moving toward a more peaceful future.”
In July 2017, Warren voted in favor of a bill that bundled together sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea, despite the risk that this bill could be an obstacle to the peace process and would certainly hurt the most oppressed and exploited people in all of these countries (although she did not cosponsor). Sanders was the only Congressperson who caucuses with the Democrats to issue a “no” vote.
However, Sanders did release a statement clarifying that he supports sanctions on Russia and North Korea, just not Iran. All the other Democratic senators running for president voted the same way as Warren.
To be fair, Warren did cosponsor the “No Unconstitutional Strike Against North Korea Act of 2017,” along with Sanders; Beto O’Rourke sponsored the legislation in the House. The Senate bill prohibits the United States from launching a military strike against North Korea without a congressional declaration of war. (The bill is still in the Committee on Foreign Relations.)
In the midst of Israel’s brutal 2014 “Operation Protective Edge” war on Gaza, that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and horrified the world with the slaughter of four Palestinian children playing on the beach, Warren repeated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talking points to defend Israel’s bombing of schools.
“When Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they’re using their civilian population to protect their military assets,” she said at a town hall meeting on August 20, 2014. “And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself.”
She went on to defend $225 million in emergency funds granted by the US for Israel’s “Iron Dome” project.
“I think the vote was right, and I’ll tell you why I think the vote was right,” she said. “America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren’t many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”
She has also been close to AIPAC, a powerful right-wing pro-Israel lobbying outfit. As Nathan Guttman pointed out in his 2016 Forward piece about how Warren is a “surprising Israel hawk,” Warren “has attended the annual dinners hosted by the AIPAC Boston chapter and counts among her supporters some mainstream pro-Israel backers, including Steve Grossman, a former Massachusetts treasurer who was also president of AIPAC.”
In 2016, in advance of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, Warren signed an AIPAC-sponsored letter urging Obama to veto “one-sided” resolutions. Gillibrand and Booker also signed that letter, while Sanders did not.
There are some signs Warren’s positions have grown slightly better in recent years, possibly a result of shifting political winds. In 2017, Warren and Sanders were among just a few senators who refused to cosponsor a bill criticizing a 2016 UN Security Council resolution that deemed Israeli settlements illegal. Gillibrand, Harris and Booker all cosponsored that bill, which never came to a final vote.
That same year, Warren joined nine other senators — including Sanders — in urging Netanyahu not to demolish the Palestinian village of Susiya and the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar in November 2017. Booker and Harris did not sign the letter.
Also in 2017, however, Warren signed a letter with every other senator, including Sanders, Gillibrand, Booker and Harris, claiming the UN has a bias against the state of Israel. In February 2019, Warren opposed a bill that would have criminalized the Palestinian-led movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, and would have provided additional funding to Israel. Booker, Harris, and Sanders also voted against.
Yemen is perhaps the one foreign policy issue where Warren’s voting record has been positive. Warren cosponsored SJ Res. 7, a joint resolution “to direct the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress.” This 2019 bill, which passed the Senate but was vetoed by Trump, was introduced by Sanders and also attracted the cosponsorship of Gillibrand, Harris, and Booker.
Warren also voted repeatedly to support efforts to block the sale of arms that would be used by Saudi Arabia in the war. This included her vote against tabling SJ Res. 39, a joint resolution disapproving of the sale of key military arms and equipment to Saudi Arabia. She did so in September 2016, in a challenge to Obama’s war, when only twenty-seven voted against tabling. Sanders, Gillibrand, and Booker were among those who also voted the right way on that resolution.
While advocates for ending the war appreciate Warren’s votes, they don’t credit her with spearheading the effort. “She is not a leader,” Jehan Hakim, who chairs the Yemeni Alliance Committee, tells me. “Chris Murphy, Sanders, Ro Khanna, and Mark Pocan — those were the people leading.”
Robert Naiman, policy director for Just Foreign Policy, agrees.
“Warren was an early supporter of Bernie’s efforts to end unconstitutional U.S. participation in the Saudi war in Yemen — much earlier than Kamala Harris or Joe Biden, who were late to join what is now the consensus among Democrats,” he says. “But if it hadn’t been for Bernie’s leadership, together with Chris Murphy and Mike Lee, the issue of unconstitutional US participation in the war, which enabled us to force Congress to vote against the war by invoking the War Powers Resolution, might never have been raised on the Senate and House floor.”
Biden, who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2002, never publicly broke from Obama on the Yemen War. Yet in May, after he declared his presidential candidacy, he called for the US to withdraw its support.
At the beginning, Warren aligned herself with Obama on the nuclear deal with Iran, and was one of the earlier Democrats to declare her support. On August 3, 2015 — some days before Bernie Sanders — Warren offered her support in an official statement.
Yet, in July 2017, Warren voted in favor of aforementioned bill that grouped together sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea (which Sanders voted against). She did this despite warnings from Obama’s former Secretary of State, John Kerry, that the new sanctions threaten to undermine the Iran deal. At a fundraiser in San Francisco in June 2017, Kerry said, “If we become super provocative in ways that show the Iranian people there has been no advantage to this, that there is no gain, and our bellicosity is pushing them into a corner, that’s dangerous and that could bring a very different result.”
As recently as December 2018, Warren called for the United States to re-enter the nuclear deal, pushing back against the Trump administration’s increasingly confrontational stance. And on May 14, Warren signed up as a cosponsor of S.1039, Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act of 2019 (though it took Warren more than a month to sign on, while Sanders was a cosponsor from the day the bill was introduced). Harris and Booker are not cosponsors. This bill “prohibits funds from being used for kinetic military operations against Iran unless Congress authorizes such an action, with various exceptions such as in response to an imminent threat.”
Throughout her career, Warren has supported defense contracts and military bases for her home state. She wrote in a 2013 editorial that, “The work that goes on at bases and by defense contractors throughout the commonwealth is a great example of how investments in research and development can help ensure our nation’s military is ready and able to meet current and emerging needs while also supporting our state’s economy.”
And a 2015 Politico article finds, “Warren has fought to stop the Army from shifting funds away from a Massachusetts-built communications network to pay for unanticipated costs associated with the war in Afghanistan. She’s lobbied for problem-plagued General Dynamics-made tactical radios. And she’s pledged to protect Westover Air Reserve Base from the budget ax — all while saying she supports “targeted” cuts elsewhere.” (To be fair, Sanders has supported the F-35 fighter jet because of his belief it will help Vermont’s economy.)
This support for military funding to Massachusetts has, at times, extended to the rest of the country. Warren backed the 2018 defense authorization bill while Sanders did not, while Warren and Sanders voted against the bloated war budget for 2019.
Perhaps most telling about what a future Warren administration would look like is the advisers Warren has surrounded herself with. In February 2017, she announced the hiring of Sasha Baker to be her national security advisor. Until 2017, Baker was the deputy chief of staff to the Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Carter oversaw the US war on ISIS, as well as US military buildup in the Asia-Pacific to hedge against China.
Another key adviser is Ganesh Sitaraman, a professor at Vanderbilt and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank aligned with the leadership of the Democratic Party that has been widely criticized for its hawkish policies, including calls for confrontation with Iran.
There are numerous other warning signs — and unanswered questions. In 2013, Warren supported John Brennan’s CIA nomination. He was a major advocate of the US targeted-killing program. (Bernie did not. Gillibrand did.)
Warren did vote against legislation that would authorize President Obama to arm and train Syrian rebels in September 2014. “I do not want America to be dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, and it is time for those nations in the region that are most immediately affected by the rise of ISIS to step up and play a leading role in this fight.” Beyond that, Warren has revealed little about her positions on Syria.
To her credit, a few weeks after she declared her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president, Warren introduced the “no first-use” of nuclear weapons bill, along with House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith. The legislation consists of a single sentence: “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”
Like her record, Warren’s campaign rhetoric is all over the map. Just after she announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president, Warren backed Trump’s calls to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, an important step. But she hasn’t followed up that public position with any meaningful political steps, and she has since released militaristic statements.
On May 15, Warren tweeted, “Climate change is … undermining our military readiness,” suggesting that she still sees military power as a US priority. That same day, Warren released a plan for a more green military, premised on the claim that “Our military can help lead the fight in combating climate change.”
Warren is calling to invest more money into making military bases zero-carbon and climate resilient, with no acknowledgement that we should be dismantling these bases. The military goals she claims are paramount are in fact driving the crisis.
Almost simultaneously, Warren introduced a separate plan to crack down on the outsized role that defense contractors play at the Pentagon. And in an earlier statement, Warren called for an end to “endless wars,” as well as a recommitment to nuclear nonproliferation. But in that same paper, she takes a hard line against China and Russia, framing international relations as a zero-sum competition.
Ultimately, however, Warren should be judged most heavily according to her overall track record, not rhetoric and promises issued in the midst of campaign season. Obama, after all, taught us we can’t rely on campaign promises, and that we shouldn’t just see what we want to see in a candidate. We have to take a hard look at what the evidence tells us that candidate will — and will not — do. Unfortunately, Warren’s track record tells us she will not lead the charge to demilitarize the United States, nor veer very far from the traditional centers of power in the Democratic Party.
The fire and passion with which she goes to bat for economic justice issues simply does not apply to the war machine. Warren embraces progressivism at home but not abroad, following in a long line of liberal chauvinists who elevate their compatriots over the rest of the world.
Daniel Fernandez contributed research to this article.