On February 12, 2020, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, delivered keynote remarks at The Century Foundation event, “After Trump: Defining a Progressive U.S. Policy for the Middle East,” which debated and defined an alternative, progressive U.S. foreign policy approach toward the Middle East.
Well, thank you very much for having me this morning. Thank you to the Century Foundation for convening this really important discussion today and I look forward to hearing the outcome of it.
It’s wonderful to be able to share the kickoff here with my friend Ro Khanna. He and I worked together very closely on trying to flesh out these broad parameters of what a new progressive foreign policy looks like—how you both learn from the mistakes that the United States has made under both Republican and Democratic presidents in the last ten to twenty years, while also believing that this country can be a force for good. That a progressive foreign policy is still an internationalist foreign policy.
And I’m also grateful for the work that Ro and I have done together on some very specific issues. He of course, has been the leader in the House of Representatives on trying to get the United States out of a disastrous conflict inside Yemen.
I’m going to try to be very brief in my opening remarks here because I’d love to hear from you and take some questions before you convene your panel here today.
But I have made the case all across the country and specifically in and around this town for the last several months that 2020 is likely going to be an election where national security matters. And I argue that the progressive movement and my political party needs to be ready for that moment.
We just went through an impeachment crisis that was all about foreign policy. This was not a domestic policy impeachment trial. This was about a president trying to use the foreign policy of the nation to gain political personal benefit.
And it seems that almost every month, this president stumbles into a near disaster somewhere around the world. Most recently a near-shooting war with Iran. And so I think you have to presuppose that by the time the fall rolls around and we might be once again in the middle of another crisis or another near miss disaster, we need to be ready as a movement and as a party to contest this election, in whole or in part on matters of national security.
Now, most pundits would tell you that if it’s a national security election, that accrues to the detriment of Democrats and progressives, because there traditionally is a national security gap, they call, between how people view Democrats and how people view Republican presidential candidates. That doesn’t have to be the case this year because folks are very wary of whether or not this president can steer the ship of state internationally, they’re looking for steady hands. But it also doesn’t need to be the case because we can take advantage of this moment. We can step up and offer real ideas, not just critiques and broadsides of President Trump. But we can offer a concrete set of ideas on how we would, as I said, learn from the mistakes of the past and how we can reorder American security abroad. How we can stop complaining about fighting asymmetric wars with our adversaries and realize that asymmetry is a choice that we make by over funding certain capacities and underfunding certain other capacities.
And so I maybe want to talk to you a little bit today about a few of what I believe to be the tenets of progressive foreign policy and how they apply to the Middle East, the subject of your conversation today.
But first, let me just make the underlying case, because I think it needs to be made, about why a progressive foreign policy is an internationalist-looking foreign policy. Because there are some people inside the progressive movement who would say progressives really need to care first, second, and third about domestic priorities, and getting involved in foreign entanglements is a distraction from our economic priorities here at home.
And others who would suggest that there is an old fashioned imperialistic American hubris connected to the idea that the United States can solve any quagmires anywhere else in the world and that we should just get over the idea that the United States can try to solve difficult, difficult problems in faraway places.
My argument, though, is a different one. My argument is that the United States needs to be forward-deployed, and the progressives need to lead that argument.
First and foremost, I would argue that there’s really no domestic progressive political priority that doesn’t have a foreign policy component.
If you care about protecting American democracy, then you need to recognize that autocrats and would-be autocrats all over the world are perfecting new tools by which to try to control and manipulate populations. And if we allow for those tools to be further developed and deployed, they will eventually be used against us here at home.
We obviously know that there are foreign actors that are the primary attackers of American democracy. And so if we’re not out there contesting those nations, then we are leaving ourselves and our own democracy, vulnerable to attacks.
If you care about climate change, then obviously we need to have a massive global footprint. Reentering Paris is the easy part. The hard part is then building an international consensus to actually get countries to meet those goals. That involves an America that is everywhere in order to protect our environmental interests.
If you just care about wages, you’ve got to recognize that the economy is global. And then it’s not just the rules of the road here in the United States that dictate how much people make or how good their health care pension benefits are, you have to be engaged economically around the world, you have to care about what China is doing and where they are if you want to protect American workers.
So, if you care about domestic progressive political priorities, then you have to be an internationalist. But I would also argue that progressives, while we may care about our neighborhood first, are also human beings, right?
There is an altruism connected to a progressive vision of the world. And as progressives, we do care about suffering wherever it happens, and if America can play a role for good in places where people are being oppressed or repressed, then we should accept that responsibility and I think that’s something that unites progressive as well.
I could go on, but I think it’s just important to remember that we have to make that argument, because there are many out there who suggest that a progressive foreign policy involves just sort of rolling up the carpet and I don’t think that’s true.
Now, let me just talk very quickly about a couple pieces of progressive foreign policy and how they apply internationally. I’ve made this case in pieces that I’ve written, as has been mentioned, and so I won’t labor into too much detail.
First, we clearly understand mistakes that have been made by the United States in attempting to solve political and economic problems in the Middle East, through the blunt power of military force. And we have to commit ourselves to never again making that mistake: viewing the American military as a mechanism to try to create political change. But we are still making that mistake in the region; let me use Iraq as an example.
The real threat in Iraq is, of course, the reemergence of ISIS. ISIS will reemerge if a set of political conditions is created in that country by which once again, the Shia-dominated central government marginalizes Sunni communities so that they are forced to turn to Sunni militant groups for protection, believing that they can’t get it from the central government.
American foreign policy in Iraq, if our priority is to stop the reemergence of ISIS, has to be around setting the political conditions in that country to stop that flight to alternative protection for Sunni communities from happening.
And yet, what are we doing today? How are we spending our dollars there today? Today we are spending four times as much money in Iraq on equipment for the Iraqi military, than we are on the political and economic reconstruction of Sunni areas of the country.
We are still viewing Iraq as a military problem that needs to be solved rather than a social and political problem. To make that even worse, this administration is engaged in a massive diplomatic pull out. It wasn’t just that we emptied out the embassy when there were alleged threats, likely threats, serious threats, from Iranian militia groups. The administration has admitted that they are just generally likely going to move forward with a massive downsizing of our diplomatic presence there.
And I sat in the meeting a few weeks ago in which administration officials talked to me about this process in which they were debating whether they needed 25 political officers or 12 political officers, which is a crazy meeting to have. Given that there’s no meeting in the Department of Defense occurring over whether we have 5,000 troops or 4,985 troops, right? We don’t accept that kind of conversation on the military side and yet, we’re talking about emptying our political and diplomatic capacity at a time where we need to be embedded with Iraqis to make sure that marginalization of Sunni communities doesn’t happen.
Second, let me talk for a minute about why progressives need to care about human rights and democracy abroad and why that needs to be a priority of the next Democratic administration.
In the Middle East, we need to care about democracy and human rights because, when you quell and control and stifle political dissent and speech, it doesn’t stay in the shadows for long. It seeps out and ends in instability, eroding in places that are very important to the United States.
Take Egypt, for example—a country that has gotten a pass from the United States for far too long. The prisons in Egypt, which are swelling with a combustible mixture of political prisoners, jihadist group members, and common criminals, can end up in a movement, essentially organizing and moving out of those facilities that could ultimately find its eyes trained on the United States—one prisoner came back from one of those facilities to tell me that the one thing that unifies every single person in those Egyptian prisons is a hatred of the United States—or it could just end up destabilizing a country that is incredibly important both in North Africa and to the Middle East.
And I don’t argue that progressives have to be all or nothing on human rights and democracy promotion. I don’t think we have to tell countries that you can’t do business with the United States if you don’t have a western-style democracy or you don’t have a bill of rights. But we do have to create some line which a country crosses with consequences.
In the region, I would argue that at the very least Egypt has crossed that line. You’re talking about multiple U.S. citizens who are still locked up in that country, one who just died in custody. And Saudi Arabia has very clearly crossed that line, especially with the kidnapping and murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
And so, a progressive foreign policy isn’t all or nothing, right? There’s a realist element to a progressive foreign policy. We understand that sometimes we need to be dealing with countries that don’t share our values in total . . . but we need to just set that line and have consequences for countries that cross it. Because if you have this continue to slide into political repression in very dangerous places that ultimately leads to a level of instability that hurts the United States.
And finally, let me just talk about the Hippocratic Oath of foreign policy, which is easy, right? First: do no harm. Now, restraint is a really hard concept, a hard strategy to get your head wrapped around. Because in the face of evil, it’s really hard to do nothing. But progressives need to occasionally argue that America sometimes can only make things worse. Restraint needs to be a part of a progressive foreign policy. I argue for Americans forward deployed, I do. But I also argue for a realism that understands, sometimes no matter what lever we press, we’re going to make it worse.
I wrote a piece for the New York Times that I would commend to you, from a few years ago. Making the case that in Syria, we should have never gotten involved in that civil war. And that would have been a very hard thing for the foreign policy establishment in this town to get their head wrapped around. The idea that we were essentially going to let Bashar al-Assad win that war, that we weren’t going to support the rebels in those early days.
But we know now, in retrospect, what happened. We were willing to give the rebels enough support to keep fighting, but never enough support to win. It was always going to be the case that Iran and Russia and Turkey had far more equities in Syria than the United States did. There was never going to be the domestic political space to give them everything they needed. And so all we did in the end, was prolong the civil war, was prolong the misery. Now, we are not the primary agent of blame. But it is important for progressives to admit that in places like Syria, American intervention has made things worse, not better. And sometimes you have to ask yourself: am I doing more good or harm by stepping in and putting an American footprint in a faraway place? I think that has to be an element of American foreign policy for progressives as well.
This may or may not be a national security election. I think it is, I think it will be. But even if it isn’t, there’s no excuse not to be ready for it. And so I’m really grateful that you’re here today, sitting down to talk about the elements of progressive foreign policy, specifically related to the Middle East. Whether we like it or not, American foreign policy still begins and ends in that region, and so we have to focus on it and drill down on it and you are very good for spending some time on this question this morning, and very generous of you to invite me.