The 2016 election will be remembered largely as a crisis at the intersection of social media, private political financing, freedoms of expression, and geopolitics. Depending on who you ask, we are suffering from either too much democracy or too little, from an elite political class that has grown too insular and paternalistic or a populist wave that has laid waste to orderly electoral process.
Add to this the rise of emergent great powers, end of American exceptionalism, and an increasingly disorderly global order… It’s as if a long-overdue earthquake had seized everything we thought we knew and violently turned it upside down.
But the new topsy-turvy political landscape, if we can see it for the tectonic changes at work beneath its surface, is also a rare opportunity to advocate for progress unobstructed by conceptual frameworks that have long grown obsolete.
It is this attitude that best describes the foreign policy vision of Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), whose resolution de-authorizing American military assistance to the Saudi Intervention in Yemen was recently passed by Congress, and who is now calling for an end to 15 years of failed interventionist policy in the Middle East. He also has a strategy for expanding the Democratic base beyond the urban demographic that was unable to carry the party to victory in 2016, and he is the first sitting member of Congress to join progressive political action committee Justice Democrats.
In this interview, Mr. Khanna explains why tackling wealth inequality and civil rights abuses is intrinsically linked to America’s strategic interests abroad, how social media and citizen-to-citizen diplomacy are the future of foreign policy, and how Bernie Sanders’ speech at Westminster College offers the right framework for rethinking America’s role in the changing international order.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Peter Gaffney (PG): What is the main lesson to learn from 15 years of interventionist foreign policy?
Ro Khanna (RK): We should absolutely move away from the interventionist approach in American foreign policy. We have spent trillions of dollars over the past two decades overextending our military and fighting wars that have not made our country safer. If anything, a continued military presence and intervention in the Middle East propagates the reasons for why al-Qaeda attacked us in the first place.
In addition to our continued military presence and interventions, our support for autocratic regimes in the name of stability and security have not made us any safer. Many terrorists who have spoken in favor of violence against the West, including the movement’s thought leader Sayyid Qutb, were radicalized in the prisons of dictators supported by the U.S.
While we haven’t suffered an attack like 9/11 since, it is unclear that our sacrifices reduced the number of terrorists across the globe. If anything, terrorism has spread. Not only was the Iraq War internationally illegal, it was a distraction from the real terrorist threat, led to the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians, and destabilized the region.
Our interventions and military actions are creating terrorists faster than we can kill them. It is a losing effort.
PG: What would you propose as an alternative?
RK: We should work with allies and find regional solutions to defeating and containing terrorist networks. We should seek to bolster America’s image by promoting economic development, entrepreneurship, and innovation around the world. We should lead in providing humanitarian aid.
PG: What did you think of Bernie Sanders’ speech at Westminster College?
RK: I appreciate Senator Sanders’ approach and believe that working multilaterally and with our allies is in our national interest. We must end the era of unilateral and unauthorized military action, especially when our national security is not directly threatened. We should focus our resources on providing more humanitarian aid and engaging in diplomacy.
PG: Sanders also proposed building “people to people relationships.” What does this mean to you?
RK: Our partnerships should be between peoples in addition to governments. We should encourage entrepreneurship, pop culture, technological innovation, and our values of multicultural pluralism at a person-to-person level. Social media can help amplify our values and is a tool of soft power.
Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, and Apple can all empower citizens and consumers and encourage citizen-to-citizen diplomacy. They need to address the abuses of bots and misinformation, but at their best, they can also be platforms that help facilitate cross-border dialogue and understanding.
PG: What are some conventional government to government strategies America should pursue?
We should use our power to strengthen and improve our partnerships and to prevent allies from carrying out mass atrocities. We have more leverage over Saudi Arabia than say Assad’s Syria because of our longstanding alliance with them. Given we have this leverage over the Saudis, we have a moral obligation to reign in their human rights abuses.
We also need to prioritize our values in forming alliances. In recent history, we supported regimes that committed human rights violations, and that made us less safe. From arming the Mujahideen in ’79 against the Soviets to supporting Saddam Hussein against Iran, picking sides has come back to haunt our security interests.
The Kissingerian era of realpolitik and balance of power framework needs to end. We need to return to the John Q. Adams tradition of restraint and standing up for our values.
PG: How do you see America’s obligations to reign in human rights abuses when it comes to non-allies?
Where we have less leverage over countries that restrict freedom and liberty, we should promote and recognize the power of technology. Technology is a powerful tool that can help spread information and empower citizenship.
Authoritarian countries that hold onto power by restricting information to their citizens have blocked websites and social media platforms because they know the power of these tools. America should encourage the unrestricted access to information and technology.
PG: You recently sponsored a resolution de-authorizing American military assistance to the Saudi Intervention in Yemen, which Congress passed by an overwhelming 366-30. What does this mean for future efforts to change the conversation in Washington?
RK: One of the things I’ve learned through the process of introducing the Yemen War Powers Resolution is the power of citizens and outside groups. If not for their activism, we would not have elevated the debate in Congress the way we did. I would encourage ordinary citizens to get involved in some of these groups and stay active online. Calling your representative’s office still works, and tweeting is just as, if not more, powerful.
Many Members of Congress I spoke with did not know the extent to which we were assisting the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen Civil War. Through the help of constituents and activists, we educated members on the issue and changed the debate in Congress.
PG: What else can our elected representatives do to raise awareness on these issues?
RK: I just sent a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee to hold all day hearings when President Trump sends his next report to Congress Consistent with the War Powers Resolution. The president is required to send a report to Congress twice a year laying out where and why we have troops abroad. This report usually garners zero attention from the media.
In President Trump’s June report, he wrote we have combat-ready troops deployed in 17 countries. One of those countries was Niger. Most Americans, and Members of Congress, to be frank, did not know we had troops in Niger. It is my hope that the Foreign Affairs Committee holds a hearing this December with Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson so they can ask where and for what purposes our armed forces are overseas.
Increasing our knowledge of these topics will better educate our electorate and strengthen our democracy.
PG: Speaking of the electorate, do you think U.S. foreign policy would benefit from “more democracy” – are we better off when foreign policy decisions respond more directly to electoral mechanisms, or is foreign policy something that should be left to “the experts”?
RK: Our nation can only benefit from more democracy.
The “experts” led us into Iraq. The “experts” took out Gadaffi and left Libya in shambles. The “experts” are supporting a Saudi led war in Yemen that has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
It’s time to re-evaluate the foreign policy establishment in Washington that has led us down the wrong path too often. If Americans had more say in our democracy, they would probably spend less money on foreign interventions, and instead rebuild our roads, invest in tech jobs, or make debt-free college and Medicare for All a reality.
We also need to improve our democracy from a separation of powers perspective. Over the past half-century, the president’s power in foreign policy exceeded the intentions of our founders. Congress was meant to check the president’s power on many issues, war and peace being one of them. Congress has the power to declare war but has only done so five times in our nation’s history. It doesn’t take a political science Ph.D. to know we’ve gone to war more than five times.
I’ve been leading an effort in Congress by invoking the War Powers Resolution to reassure Congress’ oversight over the executive branch on issues of war and peace.
PG: Why is it important for America to lead by example?
RK: We need to improve our issues at home if we want to inspire others to adopt our system of governance. Instead of fighting wars and forcing other countries to adopt our ways, we should be a beacon of hope for other nations.
As Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Or to quote President Bill Clinton, “America cannot be strong abroad unless we are first strong at home. People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”
PG: What are America’s biggest problems?
RK: As Senator Sanders eloquently articulates, wealth inequality leads to inequality in the political process. Currently, the wealthy class has far too much influence on our politics. We should empower the middle and working class so that their voices are not drowned out by the wealthy interests on Wall Street and corporate America.
We also need to work towards justice. After the protests in Ferguson in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, Human Rights Watch called for reforms in the U.S., citing “excessive use of force by police officers, including unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and rough treatment.” America’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world and the number of inmates executed is in the top ten.
It makes it harder to call out human rights violations abroad when H.R.W. is calling for reforms in our own country. When we honestly tackle police brutality and mass incarceration, we send a message to the world that we are willing to acknowledge our imperfections and work on perfecting our democracy.
The American experiment is one in which we continue to better ourselves. We are also the first truly multiracial, multicultural democracy the world has ever seen. Despite certain challenges, I do believe that we remain a powerful example for the world.
[Featured Image by Ben Margot/AP Images]