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Iran crisis tests Senator Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy vision

Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke to reporters after attending closed briefings with lawmakers regarding escalating tensions with Iran last week.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A little more than a year ago, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren found herself touring the war-ravaged Iraqi city of Mosul with Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican foreign policy hawk, by her side.

Warren recalled that she asked the same question “over and over and over” of American generals and troops and Iraqi military leaders on the official congressional trip: What does success look like?

“No one talked about military work in Iraq,” Warren told the Globe. “It was all about the need for economic rebuilding, the need for creating a government that was more inclusive . . . There was not a focus on military. And that’s how I see the whole region.”


The experience of grilling US and Iraqi officials helped form the backbone of the foreign policy vision Warren brings to her presidential run — likely to be on display at Tuesday night’s Democratic debate — that it’s time to get US combat troops out of the Middle East. That belief has also guided her aggressive response to President Trump’s decision to kill a top Iranian general in Iraq, a stance that has drawn some criticism from the left and the right and prompted an angry protester to interrupt her at a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire.

"Our military is the finest on Earth; we have people and their families who have agreed to make the ultimate sacrifice,” said Warren, who frequently highlights her three older brothers’ military service. “But we should not send our military to deal with nonmilitary problems.”

Foreign policy is expected to take center stage for the first time as Warren and five other candidates debate in Des Moines, Iowa, in the aftermath of the US military strike. It’s an issue former vice president Joe Biden has seized upon to show off his foreign policy expertise and Senator Bernie Sanders has used to highlight his record of opposing US military intervention, going back decades.


Warren has focused less on international affairs than the populist domestic agenda that brought her into politics, and her views have been harder to pigeonhole than those of Sanders and Biden, who have lengthy public records on foreign policy, compared to her more recent arrival on the scene as a Massachusetts senator in 2013.

Warren defended her shorter record as one that showcased her judgment, and — without naming Biden — strongly questioned the wisdom of anyone who voted to authorize the Iraq War, which Biden did in 2002.

“It’s a good record. and it’s a record about judgment,” she said. “I do my homework.”

Warren has worked to beef up her foreign policy experience since being appointed to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2016. In 2017 and 2018, she spent the Fourth of July visiting troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait.

“The war was a mistake,” Warren said when asked about Biden’s shifting defense of his vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq. “The United States paid dearly in the loss of American lives and in costs here at home and around the world. The Iraqis paid dearly in lost lives, injuries, and displaced people. It was a terrible mistake. And we continue to pay to this day.”

Though Warren consults with a team of outside advisers chock full of former Obama administration officials, many are younger and bring an outside-the-box perspective. Her foreign policy proposals have included cracking down on the US banking system’s facilitating of the transfer of “dark money” from authoritarian regimes abroad and beefing up the State Department to turbocharge diplomacy.


“I think it’s interesting that she has a lot of seasoned foreign policy people around her, but they’re not pushing her to sound like Obama,” said John Cavanagh, who heads the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank. “She has crafted a new policy vision that is closer to Bernie’s and has some of its own innovative tweaks.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert with the center-left leaning Brookings Institution think tank, said Warren’s foreign policy appears more pragmatic than Sanders’ while striking a more liberal tone than Biden’s.

At times, Warren has faced criticism for her foreign policy positions. Warren said on the debate stage in October that she would take all US troops out of the Middle East, which her campaign later clarified applied only to combat troops, not to those stationed in noncombat roles. Biden criticized her for the comment, saying anyone with a “serious background in foreign policy” would not say all troops should be removed from the region.

Some on the left, meanwhile, criticized Warren for waiting a few hours to release a sharper statement after Trump ordered the strike on the Iranian general, which called the attack an “assassination” only after Sanders did so.

Jarrett Blanc, a former Obama administration official who advises Warren, dismissed the controversy about the two statements. “I think the position she’s taken on Iran has been crystal clear and consistent to anyone who’s been willing to see it,” he said. “The United States should not be risking a war with Iran.”


Blanc said Warren takes a pragmatic approach to the question, asking herself whether the move to kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani is in the United States’ interest, instead of getting bogged down in a theoretical debate over whether he deserved to die. (Warren has called Soleimani a murderer but objected to the strike as a reckless escalation.)

“The weird personalization the foreign policy establishment layers over these decisions — I think she just doesn’t do it,” Blanc said.

Warren addressed the crisis with Iran in television interviews in which she questioned whether Trump authorized the strike to distract voters from his upcoming impeachment trial and defended her characterization of the attack as an assassination. But on the stump, she has stuck to her usual speech highlighting domestic issues, even as Sanders and Biden added their responses to Iran to their pitches to Iowa voters.

Warren’s foreign policy worldview is also more heavily influenced by domestic concerns than those of many other Democrats. She has written that America needs to protect its democracy by cracking down on economic inequality at home in order to combat authoritarian threats abroad, and she highlights climate change as a pressing national security threat.

“She’s got core convictions that she holds to,” said Oona Hathaway, a former lawyer in the Defense Department under Obama who advises Warren’s campaign. “But in terms of is she going to approach every problem in the way that they’ve been approached for the last 10, 20 years, I think she’s more open to thinking creatively about these problems.”


Hathaway added that Warren has been able to learn from some of the mistakes of the Obama administration on foreign policy, including the decision to intervene in Libya without congressional approval, which Obama later said he regretted.

“She comes into it with a personal experience that Obama didn’t have,” Hathaway added, mentioning Warren’s three brothers’ service. “Having members of your family who have gone to war and put themselves in harm’s way puts it in a different perspective.”

Though Warren has proposed paying military service members more and said in a debate in November that more Americans should serve, she has also proposed steep cuts at the Pentagon by scaling down foreign wars and cutting defense contracts. As part of her campaign platform, she has called for paying for her Medicare for All plan by cutting $800 billion over 10 years from the Pentagon, about 11 percent of its budget.

But Warren has managed to flesh out this more progressive foreign policy vision without appearing to alienate defense interests in her own state. Joseph Donovan, a Boston defense lobbyist, said Warren has a top-notch staff and has been easy to work with.

“She and the Massachusetts delegation have been strong advocates for defense funding, particularly in research for small companies, academic institutions, and hospitals,” he said.

Graham, a close Trump ally, said he considers Warren a “serious person” who took copious notes on their Iraq trip, though they reached opposite conclusions about the best next step for the region.

"I give her great credit for traveling to the region,” Graham said. “No doubt she cares about our soldiers. She’s trying to be good for benefits.”

But Graham, who championed the foreign wars the United States is still mired in, criticized Warren for wanting to pull out of the Middle East and cut the defense budget. “If after doing all this you think we can just leave Afghanistan, you’re missing the main point of the briefing,” he said.

Globe correspondent Syd Stone contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Oona Hathaway’s name.

Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.