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Elizabeth Warren is finding her voice on foreign policy

Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., center, talks with acting Army Secretary Robert Speer, right, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 25, 2017, prior to the start of the committee's hearing on the Army's fiscal 2018 budget. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Associated Press

Senator Elizabeth Warren talked with acting Army Secretary Robert Speer, right, and Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley on Capitol Hill on May 25.

WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren, wrapping up her first fact-finding mission to Afghanistan Tuesday, denounced President Trump for over-relying on a military fix and failing to outline an effective overall strategy for winning a war that’s dragged on for 16 years.

“This trip only reaffirmed my belief that we need comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy,” Warren told the Globe in an interview from Afghanistan. “Nobody on the ground here believes there is a military-only solution.”

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During her four-day trip, Warren met with top Afghan military and political leaders, discussed security strategy in a remote territory of Pakistan, and rode in the jump seat to observe the rugged terrain of eastern Afghanistan — all reflecting the marked broadening of her Senate portfolio beyond the middle-class pocketbook issues that fueled her rise to national prominence.

Over the last six months, the Massachusetts Democrat and former Harvard Law professor has quietly established herself as a diligent — if uncharacteristically low key — newcomer to the Armed Services Committee. While approaching the subject with studious zeal, she’s also rounding out her political resume in ways that further stoke speculation about a possible run for president in 2020.

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Her strong comments on Trump echoed the withering criticism that’s been leveled at the administration by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, who led Warren and three other senators on the Middle East trip.

The Trump administration has reportedly signed off on a plan to send several thousand more US troops into the country. More boots on the ground, Warren and others have said, is not nearly enough to change the grim outlook in Afghanistan, the war without end.

Asked to elaborate on what a more comprehensive strategy would entail, Warren said, “A solution needs to have a military angle, but also an economic and diplomatic plan. It needs to involve domestic political reconciliation, and it needs to be regional in nature.

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“The administration owes it to the American people and to our men and women putting their lives at risk, to provide that clear vision of where we’re headed.”

Warren, whose other committee assignments include the Senate Banking Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has been a member of the Armed Services Committee since January. So far she defies categorization as a hawk or dove, although the experts serving as her informal tutors include many mainstream Democratic defense figures who support a strengthened military. She is wary about potential military quagmires but does not rule out a role for American military leadership in overseas hot spots.

McCain, a two-time presidential candidate who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Warren on many domestic matters, gave her a lukewarm review when asked about her a week before the Fourth of July trip.

“Fine,” he stated, when asked what he thought of her first few months on his panel.

Has he worked with her at all?

“Sure, we all do on the Armed Services Committee,” he said tersely.

Senator Deb Fischer, a Republican from Nebraska, was more generous.

“I’ve had a good experience with her,” she said, noting that Warren is on the Strategic Forces subcommittee, which Fischer chairs. “She’s been a good member. She attends the hearings and attends the briefings. She does a good job.”

She also is keenly interested in protecting defense contracts and other security-related programs that provide jobs in Massachusetts, a traditional role for Armed Services members from the state. She issued a press release June 29, celebrating defense budget goodies she helped secure for Massachusetts, from $10 million to build an indoor small arms range at Westover Air Force Base near Springfield to $45 million in additional defense research funding, some of which will flow to Massachusetts universities and military labs.

In an interview last month, Warren demurred when asked to articulate her own proposals on major defense strategy issues. She said it is up to Trump and the executive branch to lay out the goals for Afghanistan, Syria, and other matters.

She criticized the White House for lacking a plan to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and for failing to outline a clear strategy to bring an end to the civil war raging in Syria and to address the political future of its president, Bashar al Assad. US-backed forces are on track to defeat Islamic State militants in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, she noted. That situation in recent weeks has led to clashes between the United States and Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies.

“Now what happens?” she said, referring to the impending fall of Raqqa. “The escalating hostilities between the US military and the proregime forces backed by Iran and Russia is deeply worrisome. I don’t want to see America dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, and that’s a danger we face.”

Warren is holding a series of meetings with senior figures in the Democratic foreign policy and defense establishment — including some who advised former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, former Department of Defense officials, and current military leaders.

The dozens she has met with so far include Ashton Carter , defense secretary under former president Barack Obama and a longtime Harvard physicist who is returning in July to be director of the Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; former secretary of state John F. Kerry; Derek Chollet, Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for international affairs; and Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense who would have been a top contender to be Hillary Clinton’s defense secretary.

She has met with at least a dozen current military leaders, including General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General John Nicholson, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan.

“It’s a hard committee to jump in and sound like you know what you’re talking about. She’s done that. That’s impressive,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank.

Overall, however, Warren seems to be keeping her head down, largely focusing on serious but not particularly sexy subjects including cybersecurity, Pentagon technology investments, and making it easier for service members leaving the military to get certification for civilian truck driving jobs — the topic of her latest bipartisan bill.

She’s not grabbing headlines or adding to her personal library of viral YouTube moments with her lines of inquiry at Armed Services hearings. She has issued very few official statements or Facebook posts on the big foreign policy issues of the day.

In February, Warren hired Sasha Baker to serve as her national security adviser, a selection that caught the attention of defense experts and Hill veterans as a signal Warren was serious about diving into the substance of her new portfolio.

Baker last served as deputy chief of staff to Carter, the former Obama Pentagon chief.

Baker’s “background gives [Warren’s] office, I would suggest, a competitive advantage,” said Joseph Donovan, a Boston-based defense lobbyist with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.

That doesn’t mean Warren hasn’t found opportunities to criticize the Trump administration. She, like other Democrats, likes to bring up Russian election-related hacking, about which the president continues to express skepticism. She has, through questioning, secured admissions from every top military commander to come before the panel that Trump’s proposed cuts to the State Department and other nonmilitary defense-related programs would make their job harder.

“To me, the fact that she’s not making headlines, as a defense professional, is encouraging,” said Eric Rosenbach , who was Carter’s chief of staff at the Pentagon and who will join him as co-director of the Belfer Center in July. “She’s asking very good, substantive questions” that don’t seem driven by politics, he said.

Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.
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