POLITICS

Elizabeth Warren Has A Plan For Foreign Policy. You Just Probably Haven't Heard About It.

She’s used Senate experience and relationships with both the national security establishment and its progressive critics to envision an America that's assertive but not militaristic.

On Jan. 2, President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. For the next week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren repeatedly appeared on television to argue that Trump was failing at his job as commander in chief.

“This is not a moment when a president should be escalating tensions and moving us to war,” the Democratic presidential candidate said on CNN, a day after saying she would not have ordered the strike. 

“Soleimani was a bad guy, but the question is: What’s the right response?… having killed Soleimani does not make America safer,” Warren said on ABC’s “The View.” On “Meet the Press,” she warned that Trump’s decision could expand costly U.S. military interventions and cause further suffering for millions of people in the Middle East.

As most other presidential aspirants responded with prewritten remarks, Warren’s team hoped live media appearances would prove she could handle both international upheaval and scrutiny of her foreign policy expertise.

But some on the left reacted by saying the Massachusetts senator was shoring up a problematic status quo. Warren “echoed Trump’s talking points,” wrote Jacobin, a socialist magazine, when she acknowledged Soleimani’s responsibility for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans. 

Vice President Joe Biden, one of her rivals in the primary race, said the Soleimani strike showed the need for a Democratic presidential nominee with experience — a clear argument against candidates like Warren who haven’t worked on foreign policy as long. From the right, ABC host Meghan McCain forced Warren into a lengthy and tendentious exchange about whether Soleimani should be called a “terrorist.”

Warren’s vision of global affairs can be hard to pin down. To some extent, that’s by design. Conversations with more than a dozen Warren staffers and informal advisers reveal a strategy that doesn’t seek to make national security a point of major contention in the Democratic primary. She’s not competing with Biden in romanticizing the Barack Obama administration, nor trying to challenge Sen. Bernie Sanders’s image as a prescient critic of American power and international dominance.

It’s not that Warren lacks plans. She would approach the world like she would the U.S.: using the power of government to reshape the relationship between powerful wealthy interests and significantly less powerful communities. She wants to reduce America’s foreign military presence but increase Washington’s power to tackle problems such as the way global financial corruption and authoritarianism enable each other.

With Warren nearing a make-or-break point for her campaign, the story of how she built her profile on foreign policy reflects the way she’s approached her decade-old political career. She has demonstrated both liberal instincts and comfort with existing power structures, seeking to earn people’s trust that she is the right person to enact vital change. That means she’s still not seen as left enough in some quarters, nor viewed as a trusted executor of the establishment’s priorities. But Warren is convinced she’s done the work to succeed.

Entering The Foreign Policy Debate

By the time Warren first seriously engaged with foreign policy as she ran for the Senate in 2012, she was already seen as a liberal hero willing to push boundaries. She didn’t seek that kind of reputation on global affairs.

Challenging Army National Guard Col. Scott Brown for the Massachusetts seat, Warren primarily talked about domestic policy. But she was vocal in supporting the era’s hawkish line on Iran. Then-President Barack Obama was boasting about subjecting the Islamic Republic to expansive sanctions that would, he predicted, push it into a deal limiting its nuclear program. On her campaign website, Warren endorsed “strong sanctions” and went even further by saying Tehran was already pursuing nuclear weapons. Progressives pushed back, noting that Obama officials and U.S. allies rejected that claim. 

At the time, there was no shortage of Democrats saying it was correct to get tough on Iran. But some voices warned against overly aggressive rhetoric that risked a rush to war. Warren’s fellow Senate candidate that cycle, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, produced a television ad decrying a potential conflict, and experts were already warning that the bipartisan drive for ever-broadening sanctions was taking a humanitarian toll and could backfire. Warren wasn’t saber-rattling, but she wasn’t in the liberal vanguard.

Once in Congress, Warren faced an early vote pitting skeptics of the national security establishment against the Obama administration: whether John Brennan should lead the CIA. Watchdogs like the ACLU, libertarian firebrand Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Senate progressives said Brennan’s confirmation should depend on Obama revealing more about his controversial and secretive targeted-killing program. Some worried Brennan’s past in the intelligence community meant he wouldn’t support reining in the power of its agencies. The coalition won a degree of new transparency from Obama, but members remained wary: Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Sanders (I-Vt.) voted against Brennan. 

Warren held the White House line.

The new senator also maintained ties to the defense industry by protecting jobs related to it in her state. She had explained during her campaign that, although she opposed greater intervention abroad and wanted less defense spending, she would be thoughtful in reshaping the military, not oppositional.

But it was increasingly clear the mismatch between Warren’s assertive push for a more just domestic policy and her caution on foreign policy risked trouble with more liberal elements of the Democratic base who hoped she would be their champion.

The summer of 2014 brought a stark example: Asked about Israel’s conduct in its campaign in Gaza and her vote to send it $225 million in additional U.S. aid even as it engaged in alleged war crimes, Warren defended the funding and Israeli military behavior, saying Palestinian civilian deaths were because of Palestinian militants’ tactics ― a controversial assertion common among Israel hawks. “That, ladies and gentlemen, is your inspiring left-wing icon of the Democratic Party,” commentator Glenn Greenwald wrote in a critique.

Three months later, Warren visited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on her first official trip abroad. 

Warren was willing to venture from tradition on sensitive Mideast issues ― when she had some degree of cover, especially from Obama. Five months after her Israel trip, Warren became one of eight Democratic senators to skip Netanyahu’s GOP-sponsored address to Congress criticizing the president’s negotiations with Iran, and when Obama unveiled his final nuclear deal, she was one of its early supporters in the Senate.

Her path reflected the larger Warren political playbook: maintaining institutional credibility and power while pressuring the establishment ― and the Democratic Party consensus ― in carefully chosen ways.

In the spring of 2014, she used her first major national security speech to describe how U.S. military actions harm foreign civilians, fueling anger abroad. Warren didn’t outright condemn Obama’s counterterrorism programs, which killed hundreds of non-militants despite the administration’s claims that they were “surgical,” but she used her platform as one of the best-known members of his party to argue that reforming the U.S. approach to global affairs was about more than just keeping Democrats in office.

“When we debate the costs and benefits of intervention ― when we discuss potential military action around the world ― the talk about collateral damage and civilian casualties too often seems quiet,” she said. “The failure to make civilian casualties a full and robust part of our national conversation over the use of force is dangerous.”

Warren was one of a minority of Democrats who rejected two military requests Obama made of Congress: She voted against funding for U.S.-aligned rebels in Syria in 2014 and against more weapons to Saudi Arabia for a bloody intervention in Yemen in 2016. And she joined a challenge to Obama’s top generals by supporting Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) proposal to change how the armed forces handle sexual assault. 

In 2014, Warren used her platform to argue that reforming the U.S. approach to global affairs was about more than just keeping Democrats in office.

Warren picked her biggest fight with Obama and with decades-old foreign policy orthodoxy on behalf of the chief aim of her political career: keeping capitalism in check.

In 2015, she led congressional resistance to the president’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.

Obama sold the accord as good for the U.S. economy and vital for rallying American partners against the rise of China, rallying influential supporters from both parties accustomed to bipartisan support for trade deals. Warren argued that the agreement would overwhelmingly benefit corporations. Her credentials shifted the dynamics of the fight, turning it from a traditional dispute between ideological leftists and technocratic neoliberals into a serious battle over the Democratic agenda in which both sides could claim credibility and policy chops, and attracting progressives eager for a leader.

Obama used Republican support to win the authority he wanted to secure the deal. Warren and her allies, however, won the war. They made the TPP politically toxic. Hillary Clinton disavowed it as a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, and Obama chose not to push it through before Trump took office. 

Auditioning For Commander In Chief 

Warren entered the Trump era as one of his most likely Democratic challengers. Early on, she moved to ensure national security experience wouldn’t be a weakness in any potential match-up. She secured a spot on the Senate Armed Services Committee weeks after Trump’s victory and soon hired a new top adviser: Sasha Baker, a high-ranking aide to Obama’s last secretary of defense who peers say had a reputation as a savvy institutionalist with a sense of how to get things done in Washington. 

Baker’s role was to be an operator in service of Warren’s goals — not to fill a blank slate. 

“She ran for the Senate and talked about Pentagon reform as a candidate and then chose to get on Armed Services. It’s her interest in bringing a progressive perspective to the sources of American power that makes Sasha Baker possible rather than the other way around,” said Heather Hurlburt, an analyst at the think tank New America who has tracked how Democrats talk about foreign policy for years.  

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on nuclear policy on Feb. 29, 2019.&n
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on nuclear policy on Feb. 29, 2019. 

As a new fixture at national security hearings, Warren mixed skepticism ― asking why she should believe an incoming commander would “turn around” U.S. fortunes in Afghanistan and pressuring private military housing companies and Trump appointees with defense industry ties ― with cooperation, getting uniformed officers to affirm the importance of diplomacy and working with Republicans on pay raises and sexual harassment protections for troops. 

Meanwhile, the senator pushed to inform herself, Baker said, pressing her new adviser with tasks like always providing the best argument against the position she’d recommend to the senator. Traveling to hotspots ― Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, the demilitarized zone in the Koreas, China ― she sought out junior diplomats and military officials “because she wants to get the real story,” Baker told HuffPost. 

Warren advanced her past concerns with civilian casualties by getting the Republican-led Senate to approve an amendment requiring the Pentagon to provide an annual report on the civilian toll of U.S. military operations. The Defense Department published the first of those in the summer of 2018, and lawmakers built on her work to increase the requirements even further the next year. 

And Warren became one of the few lawmakers actively addressing the question of managing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, securing a spot on the subcommittee overseeing it, rallying opposition to Trump’s bid to arm submarines with low-yield warheads and pushing to extend the New START treaty, an agreement with Russia to reduce how many weapons Moscow and Washington hold. “She has been the most outspoken and supportive of what I would call the progressive arms control agenda,” said Tom Collina, the director of policy at the peace group Ploughshares Fund, noting that Warren led well-received proposals such as legislation committing the U.S. to not using nuclear weapons first in a war. 

Though she was a junior member on a GOP-led committee whose members traditionally skew conservative, Warren took the panel seriously, said a former Senate aide who observed her work. 

“I can’t say she was particularly helpful for the things we were pushing for” ― from the Republican leadership’s standpoint ― “but I at least appreciated that she was there,” the one-time staffer said. The specific aspect of cooperation they remembered was on limiting U.S. engagement with the repressive government of Myanmar: “That was a rare exception, and that’s because we were trying to cut something.” 

But while Warren was demonstrating that she could forge national security policy, she wasn’t using the issue to grab headlines or rally left-leaning supporters. 

As others opposed to the president highlighted his foreign policy ― think of former Obama administration officials flooding the airwaves to talk about Trump weakening U.S. alliances and his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other autocrats, or Sanders leading the push against Trump’s support for the Saudi war in Yemen (with help from Warren and others) ― Warren focused most of her energy elsewhere, on domestic issues. 

Warren did make one significant public shift to assuage more liberal activists by offering a more balanced position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

She was one of the first Democrats to criticize Israel’s crackdown on protesters from Gaza in 2018 (seen as relatively controversial because of Hamas’s control of the strip) and she signed letters urging humanitarian improvement there and protection for vulnerable Palestinians in the West Bank. She distanced herself from the increasingly conservative pro-Israel group AIPAC and endorsed blocking aid to Israel to stop its settlements in territory key to a future Palestinian state. 

“As she’s learned more about this issue, she has applied more of that civil rights, human rights, value-based approach,” said Hady Amr, an informal adviser to Warren’s campaign who served as the U.S. deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under Obama. 

Warren’s move chiefly, however, aligned her with her ideological allies ― it didn’t represent her moving the needle. And it came as Trump was changing the conversation on the issue; talking about the importance of outreach to the Palestinians and Netanyahu’s excesses was no longer a left position as much it was a centrist response to the administration’s extreme pro-Israel turn. 

Without much fanfare, Warren took her time to establish herself as ready to be commander in chief. Her delay may have cost her. 

The Warren Doctrine

Warren is not the first presidential candidate to say the U.S. must be more restrained abroad after its post-9/11 wars. Obama and Trump both articulated that idea, albeit in very different ways, but neither managed a full break from the paradigm they had slammed on the campaign trail. 

What’s different about Warren is that she ties skepticism about militaristic U.S. choices to a detailed vision of what the U.S. can achieve in the world if it uses its power in different ways. 

Aligning her foreign policy approach with her better-known themes on domestic issues, she envisions assigning diplomats to focus specifically on battling corruption in foreign countries and more frequently punishing financial institutions used to launder the world’s dirty money. She would boost labor rights and policies to fight climate change at home and then make other nations’ access to the huge U.S. market contingent on their following suit. 

“We need to end the fiction that our domestic and foreign policies are somehow separate,” Warren said in a major national security speech on Nov. 29, 2018. She wants to restrict defense spending to essentials, she noted, but she also believes the U.S. must be an international leader in the face of rivals like China and Russia by strengthening its nonmilitary influence. 

“Authoritarianism is on the move around the world,” she said. “There is no time to waste.” 

Authoritarianism is on the move around the world. There is no time to waste. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

In power, Warren would likely readjust America’s international relationships in line with American values ― moving away from partners who violate U.S. ideals, like Saudi Arabia, and reducing economic links to nations where autocracy has a big role in the market, like China, according to an essay that her longtime adviser Ganesh Sitaraman published last spring. And she would reject the old Washington idea that domestic costs ― like job losses or a strain on the families of service members ― are worth incurring for perceived foreign policy wins such as strategic trade deals or military demonstrations of U.S. credibility, he wrote. (Sitaraman has no formal role in her 2020 campaign.) 

Warren is establishing a new, higher threshold for U.S. involvement abroad ― on purpose. Her advisers note that it would extend to war and peace. Should a terrorist attack or human rights crisis prompt lawmakers and the media to ask about the prospect of the U.S. getting involved, for instance, Warren would only consider military intervention if it was narrowly focused and approved by Congress, creating public buy-in and oversight. 

“A president needs to be willing to say I’ll take an [authorization for the use of military force] that’s highly limited and also call Congress’s bluff and say, ‘If you don’t give it to me, I won’t do this,’” said Ilan Goldenberg, an informal Warren adviser. 

Obama sought a specific authorization from Congress to fight the Islamic State. He failed to secure one, but he continued his war effort anyway on the basis of a 2001 authorization passed to approved fighting al Qaeda. Keeping that authorization alive meant leaving presidents with a vaguely worded approval that they have interpreted to justify a broad range of controversial military actions. 

“Obama’s instincts were right, but there’s still the instinct inside the executive branch to hold on to as much power as possible,” said Goldenberg, who worked in the Pentagon and State Department in Obama’s administration. “You need a president who’s willing to say, ‘I’m willing to accept this limitation.’ I think she’ll be willing to do that.” 

Warren’s narrative fits a moment when criticizing overly imperial U.S. policy has become a bipartisan sport. 

But just because her diagnosis appeals to people doesn’t mean her solution will. Believing in it means having faith in U.S. institutions, particularly those most implicated in the country’s national security catastrophes. 

Academics on the left are arguing a true progressive approach would reduce America’s sway, exploiting the current dominance of tools such as the U.S. financial system for goals like preventing tax evasion while shifting power to multilateral institutions in which other countries have more of a say ― ultimately creating a power structure that doesn’t have the U.S. on top and leave the world at the mercy of its shifts in policy. 

Warren’s not talking about that degree of change. The thinking she’s associated with isn’t shy about its convictions or U.S. assertiveness. “When progressives use hawkish language, they are doing so with respect to economic challenges, not with an eye toward military buildups and war,” her adviser Sitaraman wrote. 

And it’s coming from a candidate who still mostly considers foreign policy through the lens of her historic focus on what she sees as a rigged economy.

In her 2018 speech, Warren described the U.S. getting global affairs wrong starting in the 1980s because of deregulation and the increased power of corporations and the superrich. Before then, she said, “it wasn’t perfect ― we weren’t perfect ― but our foreign policy benefited a lot of people around the world.”

Though likely pleasing to some voters, that assessment oddly sidesteps the Vietnam War, which killed millions and forced a definitive reckoning for the national security establishment. It also doesn’t account for the dangerous nuclear arms race that Warren is now pledging to address. For all her domestic policy acumen and deep thinking about structural problems affecting Americans, it’s possible Warren still hasn’t thought as thoroughly about the awesome power she would wield over foreign policy as U.S. president. 

“It Takes Guts” 

Observing Warren’s formal foreign policy staff and her network of informal advisers offers clues about the kind of commander in chief she would be — one projecting responsibility, not revolution. 

Consider Baker, the respected Pentagon hand, or Jarrett Blanc, who worked in international development before serving as a top State Department official under Obama and is now, he told HuffPost, the “traffic cop” for the advice coming in from Warren’s national security brain trust. 

It’s a group of people who firmly believe the U.S. has made wrong turns but are also certain its institutions can be redeemed and its effect can be positive. Many have government experience themselves, though the team skews young, and nearly all are familiar faces in the Washington circuit ― and would have been, according to Hurlburt at New America, “highly welcome on the Biden campaign.” They chose Warren for her judgment and for explaining not just what she opposes but what she supports. Some cite her expertise on specific concerns: arms control for former State Department official Alexandra Bell, the exhaustion of the armed forces for Bishop Garrison, a veteran and advocate for the community, and reforming the State Department for Robert Ford, a retired diplomat. There’s even faith her common sense could lead her to reconsider some positions: Bonnie Glaser, a China expert, hopes Warren may change her mind on the TPP trade deal. 

But in a Democratic primary often fought on the terrain of the left, Warren’s cautious reform isn’t always welcome. In particular, activists point to Warren’s 2017 vote for Trump’s first defense budget as a worrying sign she won’t sufficiently challenge the status quo. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) leave the stage after a Democratic presidential primary debat
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) leave the stage after a Democratic presidential primary debate in New Hampshire on Feb. 7. Her talk of carefully reforming U.S. foreign policy is being compared to Sanders's more combative rhetoric.

“That money just ends up going to war,” said Moumita Ahmed, a political activist based in Queens, New York. Ahmed sought to draft Warren against Clinton in 2016 and hoped she’d make up for her lack of national security experience. Ahmed believes Warren has failed to do so ― not because she’s personally hawkish but because she hasn’t learned enough to challenge national security establishment logic. (Warren said she backed the budget bill because of its provisions to support troops and for Massachusetts; she noted, “I do not support everything in this defense bill.” At a recent debate, Sanders boasted of never supporting a Trump military budget, though he did back defense spending bills under President George W. Bush.)

“If you’re going to stand up to the military-industrial complex, you can’t go in there with lukewarm policies or milquetoast stances,” Ahmed said. “It takes guts, and she hasn’t exhibited guts to me the way Bernie has.” 

Warren also is vulnerable to attacks from the candidates perceived as more experienced, like Biden. He might warn that her proposed reforms and reduction of the U.S. role abroad risk security, a perennial concern for voters, or simply that it’s too ambitious at a point when the focus should just be undoing Trump’s damage to U.S. global leadership. 

And Warren’s historic potential to be the first woman in the job might create additional exposure to those arguments. “There’s no question that there’s an extra commander in chief test that women face,” Hurlburt said. “One of the areas where that really comes up is, ‘Who do you trust to keep us safe?’” 

Warren’s bet is that she can make voters comfortable with her approach to global affairs and in a general election chiefly present herself as more reasonable and less bellicose than Trump. National security doesn’t have to be a central issue when she has so many other plans to talk about.

But if Warren does win the White House, can she claim a popular mandate on how to conduct foreign policy, a role that’s mostly left to the president? She would need one to overhaul the national security establishment in the terms she suggests — or to respond to a crisis. And given the world she would inherit from Donald Trump, pandemonium could be just around the corner.  

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