Can new faces change Washington’s bad habits?
A PRIDE OF POLITICAL LIONS is approaching Washington. Beginning in January, the House of Representatives will count four young women of color among its members. All have crashed through daunting barriers and see themselves as representing the downtrodden. They are likely to emerge as a political force in Congress. All four of them support causes that are stigmatized as radical, from single-payer health insurance to a guaranteed minimum wage to abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Their willingness to break with established consensus on domestic issues raises the exciting possibility that they will be just as iconoclastic when it comes to foreign policy. None of these women made her name by working on global issues. In Congress, however, they are poised to challenge deep orthodoxies that shape Washington’s bipartisan militarist consensus.
The biggest celebrity in this “Pride of Four” is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old community activist of Puerto Rican descent who in July defeated a veteran Democrat to win a congressional nomination in New York. Then in August, two Muslim women who were serving as state legislators followed with almost equally surprising primary victories: Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who was born in Somalia and spent four years in a refugee camp before emigrating to the United States at the age of 12. This month Ayanna Pressley, an African-American city councilor, upset a 20-year House veteran to win a congressional nomination in Boston. One of the four, Omar, faces token opposition in November and the other three face none. They will be part of an entering class like few that Congress has ever seen.
Three of these four congresswomen-to-be have already flouted the unwritten but longstanding rules that are supposed to shape debate about Israel and Palestine. One of them, Tlaib, delivered her victory speech while draped in a Palestinian flag, drew cheers when she proclaimed that “a lot of my strength comes from being Palestinian,” and promised to “fight back against every racist and oppressive structure that needs to be dismantled.” Omar, who wears a colorful headscarf, calls Israel “an apartheid regime” that has “hypnotized the world,” and supports the Palestinian “right to return” — a position that may never before have had open support in Congress. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted “This is a massacre” after Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinian protesters in Gaza this summer, and then added pointedly: “Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.”
Unlike the other three women of color who are about to enter Congress, Pressley has given her new constituents little indication of her views on foreign policy. She declined to be interviewed on the subject last week. During her campaign she shied away from criticism of Israel and refused to commit herself to supporting a withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, or to opposing deployment of troops in Syria. Yet she has pledged to support a bill that would end American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and another that would end aid to Israel that pays for “violent military detention and abuse of Palestinian children.”
That bill, the first of its kind in Congress, was proposed by a female member, Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota. Another woman, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, has become a consistent voice opposing American involvement in foreign wars. Representative Barbara Lee of California, who cast the only vote against the 2001 resolution authorizing our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is still serving and remains a fierce critic of American intervention abroad. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Zoe Lofgren of California have repeatedly called for less interventionist foreign policies. These women will greet the four lionesses who are due to arrive on Capitol Hill in January. Together they could form a potent group that presents foreign policy as a feminist issue.
These legislators are committed to health care, education and housing programs that would be hugely expensive. The United States has more than enough money to pay for them — but only if it stops devoting so much of its wealth to weaponry and war. Decisions that Congress makes about foreign policy also directly affect society in areas ranging from climate change to domestic abuse. At home, spending tax money on the military increases social inequality, which has especially pernicious effects on women. In countries where we fight or support wars, women and girls always suffer most.
More female voices on foreign policy hardly guarantee more voices for peace. The list of American women who have promoted foreign wars, including Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Nikki Haley, makes that clear. Yet the four who are now about to enter Congress may prove to be peacemongers. If they recognize that the United States cannot be transformed until we change our approach to the world, they should demand that change. In the jungle, lionesses do the hunting. Let’s hope that when Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar, and Pressley get to Washington, they’ll set their sights on our war-fixated foreign policy.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column misidentified the state that Representative Betty McCollum represents in Congress. She represents Minnesota, not Michigan.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.