WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren wrapped up a trip to the Middle East on Wednesday, a fact-finding mission aimed at more closely evaluating both the ongoing political turmoil in Iraq as well as the continued fight with the Islamic State.
Amid continued speculation about a possible presidential run in 2020, Warren stopped in Kuwait for breakfast at Camp Arifjan with about 25 troops from a Reading-based unit of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, and then traveled to Iraq, where she joined Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican.
The two senators toured a NATO operations center and visited a mosque in Mosul that was destroyed during fighting with the Islamic State. They also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.
“We discussed Iraq’s recent elections, our countries’ joint commitment to defeating ISIS and combatting terrorism in the region, and our shared desire to build a better life for the Iraqi people,” Warren wrote on Facebook of her meeting with al-Abadi. “Our military support played a significant role in enabling the Iraqi Security Forces to retake their country — but only the Iraqis can do the hard work needed to rebuild and prevent extremist threats from reemerging. They need the world’s support in this effort.”
Warren capped off the brief trip Wednesday with a breakfast with foreign service officers from Massachusetts assigned to the US Embassy in Baghdad, briefings with military leadership, and a July Fourth celebration at the embassy.
Graham, in a minute-long video posted to Twitter, thanked the troops, as well as President Trump, “for being a strong commander in chief.” He praised the effort in Iraq and noted how fewer US troops are dying as Iraq takes more responsibility.
“It is important in my view that Iraq turn out well, that it not be a safe haven for terrorism or a satellite state of Iran,” Graham said in the video.
For Warren, the trip is bound to raise further talk about her 2020 plans, as the Massachusetts Democrat and former Harvard Law professor continues trying to bolster her foreign policy credentials, which to date have been a weaker point in her resume. When asked, she says that she is running for the US Senate this year and not for president.
This week’s trip is her latest holiday-time travel to a region that is vital to American foreign policy interests. Over Easter weekend, she visited the demilitarized zone between South Korea and North Korea on a trip that included stops in China, South Korea, and Japan. Last year during the Fourth of July, Warren went to Afghanistan to meet with troops and evaluate the rugged, war-torn terrain on a trip that was led by Republican Senator John McCain.
“She still has an opportunity to define, or redefine, her foreign policy worldview in the context of any presidential run,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution. “She is not, for the general foreign policy or politics worlds, so firmly entrenched in any well-known set of positions as to make it impossible to start largely anew with a big vision or well-defined set of new principles.”
Warren joined the Senate Committee on Armed Services last year, which was an early sign of her attempts to bolster her foreign policy chops, and the Globe reported last year that she had started holding a series of meetings with senior figures in the Democratic foreign policy and defense establishment.
The committee perch also allows her to focus on protecting the defense industry in Massachusetts, such as Westover Air Reserve Base near Springfield and Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford.
But in contrast to her viral, made-for-YouTube moments on issues like banking and consumer protection, she has been more understated on defense and foreign policy issues.
“This could not be a smarter move, both substantively and politically,” said Scott Mulhauser, former deputy chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and chief of staff at the US Embassy in Beijing who recently founded a consulting firm called Aperture Strategies. “It is real, substantive engagement that continues to bolster her foreign policy bona fides in the Senate, while providing additional gravitas as she runs for reelection, speaks up against President Trump, and considers a presidential run.”
Her homework on the issues was showcased two weeks ago during a forum with Graham at the annual conference of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based national security think tank. She held her own against one of the Republican Party’s most experienced foreign policy voices.
She argued for more funding for the State Department’s rank-and-file, pushed for broader military recruitment of researchers and troops from areas like New England, and spoke in defense of the Iran nuclear deal. She also criticized Trump for offering rhetorical support for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without gaining any diplomatic concessions.
But she also showed an inclination to turn the topics toward more familiar terrain: fighting for the American middle class.
“We need a strong economy at home. This is an important part of our foreign policy: If we want to be safe outside, we have to have a strong economy at home,” she said. “And I believe a strong economy means we have to have a prosperous middle class . . . that then creates the conditions where America can do more around the world.”
They also disagreed vigorously over America’s role in Afghanistan, with Graham arguing for a strong and indefinite military presence — and pushing Warren to articulate a plan rather than just criticizing the Trump administration — while Warren questioned whether the US military should have a role in solving Afghan political problems.
“Well, what’s your plan?” Graham asked several times.
“I’m a pragmatist,” Warren said, without getting into much detail. “I want to use all the tools. You’ve got to talk about all the tools. The president put more people in Afghanistan, he needs a plan — where’s his plan?”
The event was mostly cordial, with two senators debating vigorously but respectfully.
“Elizabeth, I’ve traveled with her to Iraq, to Afghanistan. She’s one of the senators who spends her time out there to learn about keeping us safe here,” Graham said. “Here’s what impresses me the most: the reception she gets from the military. They really do appreciate you coming.”
“That’s very kind of you to say,” she responded.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.