Democratic party elites silence Ilhan Omar at their peril

The congresswoman's foreign policy views are far more in line with voters than the disconnected party establishment
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  Trita Parsi  and Stephen Wertheim Democratic party elites silence Ilhan Omar at theirperil The congresswoman’s foreign policy views are far more in line with voters than the disconnectedparty establishment Sat 16 Feb 2019 06.00 EST T his week Democrats plunged into two controversies that portend danger for the party asthe 2020 election season begins. Both centered on freshman representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who, not coincidentally, came to America as a Somali refugee and is now one of the two first Muslim women in Congress. Absent an open debate about the party’svalues on foreign policy, Democrats are hurtling toward an election more divisive thanthe one in 2016.First, on Monday, Omar criticized the influence of pro-Israel lobbyists on Capitol Hill, tweetingthat Congress’s stance was “all about the Benjamins”. She was swiftly rebuked by the partyleadership in tandem with Republicans, prompting her to apologize. Then, less than 48 hourslater, Omar grilled America’s new envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, over his well-documentedmaterial support for multiple Central American governments that committed mass killings andgenocide in the 1980s. She also questioned his credibility, noting that Abrams had pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress as part of his participation in the Iran-Contra scandal.How did Democratic elites respond? Several pounced again – to defend the Trumpadministration’s backer of death squads against Omar’s pointed questioning. Kelly Magsamen, asenior official at the Center for American Progress, defended Abrams on Twitter as a “fierceadvocate for human rights and democracy”. Likewise, Nicholas Burns, a 27-year diplomat whomost recently advised former secretary of state John Kerry, praised Abrams as a “devoted publicservant”. “It’s time to build bridges in America,” Burns wrote, “and not tear people down.”If Democratic leaders were incredulous at Omar’s statements, rank-and-file Democrats were justas incredulous at their party leaders. Why, many asked, is it routine to criticize the influence of NRA money but almost forbidden to question the influence of Aipac money? On top of that, howcould Trump’s neocon criminal be lauded as some sort of ally while Omar was treated as a pariah?A Twitter torrent caused Magsamen to delete her tweet and apologize.Personalities aside, however, the episode is charged with significance for the Democratic party asa whole. Omar is not going away. She represents the party’s younger generation, a more diverseand progressive cohort that came of age in the war on terror. In the election of 2016, such voters balked at Hillary Clinton’s hawkish record and her courting of Never Trump neoconservatives.Now the divide is only wider and more entrenched. Democrats need to have a real conversation,  immediately, about the party’s values and goals in foreign policy. Squelch it now and watch itresurge in 2020, with Trump the beneficiary. “We share goals,” Magsamen wrote  of Abrams. Do we? The outrage over her claim proved itsfalsity. What goals Democrats wish to promote in the world is now an open question, not settleddictum that thinktankers can impose from Washington. The Democratic base is no longerdeferential, especially not when it is told that it has some obvious affinity with the man whocovered up one of the bloodiest massacres in Latin American history, and went on to push the Iraqwar inside the George W Bush administration.Just what are the goals, and values, of those who have implemented decades of fruitless foreverwar and then close ranks when their worst members are asked accurate and relevant questions?The American people are wondering. The manifestations are everywhere, among young people inparticular. Start with the sacred cow of American exceptionalism: millennials are the first agegroup to split evenly on whether the US is the world’s greatest country or no greater than others.They are increasingly ready to reckon with America’s past actions and confront hard choices goingforward.Young Democrats are not likely to agree that one violent misdeed after another is somehowacceptable as long as it is performed by the US or in the name of democracy or humanitarianism.Those were the rationales, now revived in defense of Abrams, that produced impunity for the Iraqwar, a disastrous war of aggression. Ordinary citizens consistently display more skepticism of military intervention than do foreign policy elites. They are pushing their representatives toexpress the goal of peace. The election of Omar herself reflects this sentiment. And as a result of grassroots mobilization, the House this week, driven by progressives like Representative RoKhanna, passed historic legislation to end US support for the Saudi war in Yemen.The shift in the Democratic base is not limited to one episode. Democrats increasingly favorcutting the defense budget and imposing restraint on America’s military power. While elitesassume that the US must maintain global military superiority as a matter of course, less than half of millennials deem it to be a very important goal. That is the lowest support on record,continuing a steady erosion since the second world war. Will political leaders engage the risinggeneration’s doubts, or will they insist that armed domination is a self-evident virtue for acountry that is hurting at home and often spreads violence abroad?On the Israel-Palestine conflict, it was Omar, more than her party elders, who represented thevalues of Democratic voters when she criticized the influence of money in politics and applied thepoint to America’s virtually unconditional support for Israel. The overwhelming majority of Democrats, about 82%, now say the US should lean toward neither Israel nor Palestinians. Evenmore dramatically, 56% of Democrats favor imposing sanctions or harsher measures against Israelif its settlements keep expanding. The mounting disaffection with Israel comes as the primeminister, Benjamin Netanyahu, scorned Barack Obama and embraces Trump and otherauthoritarians. Yet Democratic leaders leapt to denounce Omar, giving her no benefit of the doubtfor a poorly worded tweet. Critics must take care not to play into anti-Semitic tropes, but concernabout lobbyist influence is legitimate and poised to intensify. Democratic voters seek genuine alternatives , not the continuation of a one-party DC elite thatassumes its right to rule and rules badly to boot. But the Democratic establishment is moving inthe opposite direction. It has chosen to “build bridges,” all right – with the neoconservatives mostdirectly responsible for calamitous policies and most diametrically opposed to the base. This  decision has now culminated in the defense of criminals like Abrams who embody both the worstof American foreign policy and the impunity of those who make it.More important is the bridge that is not being built. Years after neocons have been exposed to lacka popular constituency, actual voters in the party are being shut out and talked down to, asexemplified in the badgering of Omar. What are the progressives who put Omar, and AlexandriaOcasio-Cortez, and dozens of others into office to conclude about party leaders who would ratherspurn them to make common cause with architects of the war on terror? Why are some in theparty prioritizing bridge-building to washed-up neocons (in the Trump administration, no less)and not to new, mobilized voters?The party’s divide is not insurmountable. Open dialogue can go a long way toward establishingthe mutual respect that a party needs to maintain basic unity despite internal disagreements. Thenew generation of Democrats is, after all, the future of the party. But 2020 is fast approaching, andthe bridge that needs building just got longer.TopicsUS foreign policyOpinionUS CongressHouse of RepresentativesIsraelLobbyingDemocratscommentTrita Parsi is the author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy. StephenWertheim is a visiting assistant professor of history at Columbia University
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