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Q&A: Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Co-Chair Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., on Progressive Foreign Policy

A consistent foreign policy can be one that clearly speaks out against the Assads of the world but then says, we can’t go to war in all these places and we can’t intervene in all these places

Nicholas Clairmont
June 13, 2019
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Ro Khanna is a self-identifying progressive who beat out a Democratic incumbent in 2016 to represent California’s 17th District, comprising most of the east side of the San Francisco Bay and much of the heart of Silicon Valley. A former intellectual property lawyer and previous two-time contender for the office, Khanna is among the vanguard of progressive freshmen in Congress. He’s media-hungry and media-savvy, including on social media. And while he doesn’t agree with Bernie Sanders on every issue, he’s become a national campaign co-chair for the senator’s bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has been particularly active on Yemen. He led the effort to pass a bill ending American financial and logistical support for the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi rebels that has caused widespread destruction and famine in Yemen. The bill was vetoed by President Trump—only the second veto of his presidency—but the White House says it has backed off most of the activity the bill aimed to stop.

Unlike many of his more media attention-focused fellow freshmen representatives, Khanna focuses a lot of his energy on American foreign policy and its history. I talked with him about his views on what the foundational principles of a progressive foreign policy should be after he replied to an article I wrote arguing that Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy record should disqualify him from consideration for the presidency.

I wanted to know: Does the left have an articulable foreign policy ideology, or does it just take on what remains after criticizing certain morally intolerable conclusions of right-wing foreign policy ideas? The congressman agreed to an extended phone conversation on this question and related issues. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Nick Clairmont, for Tablet: Media reports frequently call you progressive—”progressive Rep. Ro Khanna, et cetera.” How do you define “progressive”?

Ro Khanna, member of Congress (D-Calif.) and co-chairman of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign: I would say that a progressive is someone who believes in economic justice, bringing opportunities to places and people left behind. And also who cares about justice and equality on issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

NC: That’s fair. So does a progressive also have responsibilities to people who are doing pretty well?

RK: Sure. A progressive should stand up for their human rights, their civil rights, and make sure that their environment is one that’s decent. Make sure that they’re living in communities that are well functioning.

NC: What does “progressive” mean when it comes to American foreign policy?

RK: I would argue that a progressive foreign policy follows a track perhaps closest to John Quincy Adams. And the reason I say that is because John Quincy Adams counsels restraint in military interventions abroad, but he still recognized America’s obligations to promote human rights and speak for human rights. In a very famous passage, he says that America should always be on the side of human rights. We should offer our prayers, our benedictions, our hopes—one could argue our economic engagement—to further those causes, and diplomacy to further those causes. But we should not be intervening militarily.

Because when we intervene militarily we won’t be perceived often as a liberating force.

Now, of course there are times when we do need force—say, when we’re attacked. I was for striking al-Qaida after 9/11. I of course believe deeply in the good America did in World War I and World War II. But what Quincy Adams argues is that force has to be among the very last options. And only when we’re directly attacked.

NC: So you’re not strictly isolationist or pacifist. Force is just a last resort.

RK: I supported the strikes on al-Qaida . And I wish the United States, if anything, had intervened earlier in World War II. We probably could have saved more lives. But we played an extraordinary role in making the world safe for democracy and defeating tyranny. I agree with the characterization of the WWII veterans being the greatest generation.

I was for our intervention in WWI, and I believe Woodrow Wilson tried to fashion a peace after World War I based on the League of Nations. If people had listened to him at the Treaty of Versailles, we may never have had WWII. But of course, his advice was disregarded.

I would say that you can have a John Quincy Adams posture, and I would couple it with aggressive engagement with the world diplomatically, economically, based on technology and innovation. You can accept that that is a part of 21st-century statecraft, where now technology allows us to communicate. It builds movements across borders to further democratic ideals.

So, there are many ways I believe the United States should firmly be engaged in the world, and reject isolationism.

NC: Between what you just said, and some of your work on Yemen, it seems to me you have sort of a Jeffersonian-Jacksonian outlook, to which you’ve added Quincy Adams, which is really interesting.

RK: Well Quincy Adams is the person who I’ve thought about and who I would argue my thinking has been most influenced by. And many progressives, I would argue, look to him.

NC: It seems to me that for the libertarian right or the traditional right wing, it can follow from their principles that the state has very limited responsibilities to use force internationally. Because, they believe the state has very limited responsibilities simpliciter. Whereas, I can’t quite grasp, because the left is to my mind inherently internationalist, what progressive principles your posture follows from.

RK: Well I think it’s progressive because it has a sense of humility. A sense of, “yes, we want to universally recognize human rights, and universally recognize the dignity of individuals.” And that “the state has an affirmative role.” So that’s the abstract liberal idea of Immanuel Kant’s, where we all live in perpetual peace and recognize the dignity of every individual. And I would argue that that is an animating principle of progressives.

But there is a humility in understanding that we don’t have the knowledge or the ability to bring about, in many cases, the Western democratic order in nations abroad. When we have intervened, it has often led to the situation becoming worse.

So what I would argue is that there is a very consistent intellectual progressive view that we should push for human rights, we should promote democratization—but we should do so with a humility to recognize that military intervention is unlikely to lead to that outcome.

Look at Maduro: I think Maduro is a horrible leader. I believe he has a failed economic policy. He’s violated human rights. But, I think that the intervention where we tried to prop up Guaido actually strengthened his hand in Venezuela and allowed him to rally his base.

NC: And the other 51 countries that recognized Guaido as the legitimate leader …

RK: But the majority did not in the OAS organization. [Ed: The Organization of American States recognized Guaido’s representative as the ambassador from Venezuela in April.]

What I would support is what Pope Francis said. Pope Francis said, “let’s have negotiated settlements, negotiated mediation.” Which Mexico and Uruguay have been pushing for. And by the way that’s what’s now happening. Now Guaido is going to Norway to have negotiations. So what we were calling for was to have negotiations at least on new elections, what the pope was calling for, actually turned out to be a shrewder foreign policy.

NC: Sure, sure. But shrewdness about the particular situation in the moment—I mean, it seems like they may have just gotten ahead on their skis—is different than saying the sort of Chavist model of running Venezuela is a good idea …

RK: It’s a horrible policy! I’ve been very clear.

NC: I’m not claiming you haven’t. But if foreign policy in general is to be progressive it seems to me it has to be internationalist—and committed to radical change and action. Which is what progressive is or means.

RK: But it doesn’t have to be committed to military force.

NC: No, that may be in any given case the wrong radical action.

RK: And it doesn’t have to be committed to radical action either. You can have a Dr. King-like progressive view, which is rooting things in historical context and culture.

NC: I would call him a radical. In the best way.

RK: I would argue that one can be progressive but be judicious in how to bring about a progressive vision. I would call Barack Obama a progressive who also had a judicious temperament.

NC: Right, but he failed to uphold his own red line in Syria. And he failed to defend Ukraine, which was one of the only countries to decide to disarm itself of nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees.

RK: Assad is a brutal war criminal, obviously. So I condemn him, obviously. And the human rights abuses. But I don’t know that our intervention made the situation any better, when we basically called for regime change without having the ability to back that regime change.

NC: I think if there were fewer helicopters dropping fewer chlorine barrel bombs, that would probably would have been a good thing.

RK: So I think what a consistent foreign policy can look like is one that clearly speaks out against the Assads of the world, clearly speaks out about human rights violations by Maduro, clearly speaks out about the Uighurs in China, clearly speaks out against Putin’s annexation of Crimea and propping up of war crimes in Syria. But then says, “OK, we can’t go to war in all these places. And we can’t intervene in all these places.”

How are we going to empower regional players diplomatically, how are we going to strengthen multilateral institutions diplomatically to help resolve these issues, how are we going to build international coalitions? And what can we do for the promotion of technology, the promotion of economic development, the promotion of cross-cultural exchanges, to takes steps toward building the world that has greater recognition of human rights? I guess that would be my nutshell summary.

NC: In Yemen, which I know that you have a lot of strong feelings on and have done a lot of work on …

RK: I mean, I passed the first War Powers Resolution in the history of this country on Yemen. The president didn’t sign it, but it was the first time it’s ever passed the House or Senate.

NC: Which was incredibly impressive. But U.N. Resolution 2216 has some, as far as U.N. language goes, some pretty not-screwing-around language. It internationally authorizes the Saudi-led coalition’s activities. It demands the Houthi rebels in Yemen put down their arms and get out of the capital city, Sana’a. And it’s authorized under Chapter VII, which is binding on all member states, including the U.S.

So there’s a sense in which some of these things, including the relevant and binding U.N. Security Council resolution, just gets trumped in your mind by enough bombed buses or enough pictures of starving children?

RK: The U.N. Charter can’t obligate American intervention. So the War Powers Resolution was just saying that the United States has no business getting involved supporting the Saudis in the war. It’s not taking any position on the conflict itself.

What the War Powers says is without coming to Congress, we have no business refueling Saudi planes. And the administration, by the way, acknowledged that one. They voluntarily suspended their refueling in reaction to the War Powers Resolution I produced.

If you talk to [U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen] Martin Griffiths or if you talk to Mattis—I have had many conversations with Secretary Mattis—he will tell you it was my efforts on the War Powers Resolution that led to him and the administration, if he’s candid now that he’s out of government, that’s what allowed him to stop the refueling.

NC: Maybe I’m just legally illiterate. But it seems to me that, assuming it doesn’t just instruct the president, where the president can choose to simply not take the instruction, should U.S. military personnel take the resolution as a countermanding order after a 90-day interval?

RK: We’re thinking about going to the Supreme Court where this issue has to be resolved. If Congress speaks and says something is unauthorized, as we have in Yemen, does the president still have the power to commit us? Now in this case, the president has stopped. I mean, according to them, they have stopped.

NC: So let’s just say, theoretically, there are troops in the field, and the president says, “continue to engage …”

RK: Yes, I think that’s the Steel Seizure Case in the Supreme Court, which says that the president doesn’t actually have that authority. It’s never actually been litigated, where the House and Senate have passed a War Powers Resolution and the president continues. Bruce Ackerman and other constitutional law experts/scholars are recommending to Speaker Pelosi that the president’s veto isn’t the final word on it, and it should go to the Supreme Court.

I actually believe there are conservatives on the Supreme Court who may rule for Congress and say, “if Congress speaks, that you can’t have the president in defiance continue to commit us to war.”

NC: It seems constitutionally clear enough. It also seems like a problem for the military command structure.

RK: Well it’s a problem because we obviously don’t want to constrain in any way the commander-in-chief within the context of an immediate threat. And that was particularly important during the Cold War.

But the reality is that there are ways to protect our immediate interests without compromising the Congress’ ability on war and peace. And the presidents have abused that power.

NC: Certainly. It’s been expanded over time, pretty much consistently.

RK: One of the reasons I keep coming back to John Quincy Adams, that I’d love for this piece to capture accurately on a progressive foreign policy—and you can say that I think Quincy Adams is the progenitor to it—is this view that we progressives are for liberal democracy. We are for condemning authoritarian regimes.

I would unequivocally condemn Assad as a war criminal and a dictator. I would unequivocally say Maduro has violated human rights and has had a failed economic policy. I would unequivocally say Putin’s annexation of Crimea is a moral wrong, and that their intervention in our elections cannot stand. And they shouldn’t be poisoning their own political opponents. I can unambiguously say that China shouldn’t be putting the Uighurs in camps. I will speak out very, very forcefully for liberal democracy and for human rights.

Where there is a distinction is that my view is the advancement of those, in most cases, should be done with regional diplomacy, with international institutions, with economic engagement, with technological engagement. And we have been overextended in our military interventions, and we need greater restraint.

The Middle East is only 3.5% of global GDP. China is 15%. We’re at 24%. We’ve been distracted in places that aren’t in our strategic interest. That I think is a morally clear progressive foreign policy.

And then I think there can be honest debate. People can say, you know, “no, we should be using the military more. Ro’s strategy on economic regional diplomacy is not going to be as effective as a more aggressive military posture.” And that’s a reasonable criticism. I would reject it, but then we can have a reasonable debate.

But the straw man that the other side puts up is sort of “why don’t these progressives care about human rights and moral clarity?” And we have extraordinary—at least I have—extraordinary moral clarity in viewing liberal democracy as the superior governing system. And in believing that our nation has been founded on exceptional values. But that we have to be strategic and humble in thinking about how one promotes liberal democracy. And my view is that requires local stakeholders. It requires regional buy-in. It requires economic development. It requires the spread of technology. It’s not going to done through a blunt instrument of military intervention, where people often don’t even understand the full context.

NC: Everything that you just said I agree with, and yet I don’t think that we are in overall ideological agreement.

RK: Maybe, maybe. I get the sense that after an articulation of progressive foreign policy, maybe there’s a different articulation.

NC: I know you don’t claim to speak for Bernie, but you’re also a campaign co-chair. And Bernie, by the way, in the New York Times follow-up interview on May 18 said some things toward the bottom of the interview that I thought were really heartening about the need for a U.S. role. Where he said, “you’ll never hear me say the U.S. doesn’t have a special foreign policy role to play.” And I was pleased to see that.

On the other hand, let’s take Bernie aside and just say that there is something unsurprising about finding a far-left foreign policy internationalist view that describes itself as anti-imperialist and has a way of defining imperialism as being “the United States and often Israel doin’ stuff.” And it thinks they really shouldn’t do stuff. Other countries probably should do stuff more instead. Even if those other countries are quite literally evil empires, that doesn’t trip the anti-imperialists’ problem like America does by using its own power.

RK: Look, no one has greater authority to speak about the need for a post-colonial world order than I do. My grandfather spent four years in jail with Gandhi in the 1940s fighting colonialism. Let’s be very clear: The great evils in this world were perpetuated by Belgians, the Belgian colonial model in the Congo was cruel. Or, you had a vision of empire that the British had.

America has not been perfect, but has had a far greater restraint in expansion than almost any major superpower. In the early 1940s and even before that, America led the movement for decolonization around the world. It was America that put pressure on Britain to decolonize. It was America that spoke up for decolonization in many parts of the world. And that was not just Woodrow Wilson, it was the League of Nations and self-determination. It was also FDR. They really pushed for decolonization.

So I believe that, on balance, America has been an extraordinary instrument for good in the world. We are a country that helped to defeat fascism. We are a country that prevailed over communism in the Cold War. We are a country that is going to be the first multicultural, multiracial democracy in the history of the world.

NC: Well, and India.

RK: Well, India is diverse linguistically and culturally. But as far as really being the representative of all the different continents, America will be the first. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn lessons from mistakes in our history.

One can believe that America has been a force for good in the world and that we have been far more restrained than the British at the peak of their power, the Belgians or other Europeans, or the Romans. But still believe that we should learn the lessons of the mistakes of the overthrow of Mossadegh or the mistakes of the Vietnam War. The mistakes of Iraq and Libya.

I think what progressives are saying is, “let’s be true to our founding ideas, let’s recognize that America is a force for good in the world. But let’s recognize that where we’re most a force for good is our pop culture, our technology, the export of our values, our economics. And let’s be very, very restrained about a use of military force. If we fashion that kind of foreign policy, America will help usher in a more peaceful and prosperous world.”

And America has an obligation to do that. Because American leadership in the world is far, far preferable to Chinese leadership, or to Russian leadership, or to other superpowers that don’t share basic values on liberal democracy and free enterprise.

NC: Well I think that makes sense. I will accept that as the definition of progressive foreign policy per you, and I think it sounds at least sensible. I still, I wonder about why it aligns you so closely with the Senator Rand Pauls of the world.

RK: I disagree with certain things that Senator Rand Paul thinks.

If someone asked, as you did, who does Ro Khanna align himself with on foreign policy, I’d say John Quincy Adams.

NC: Right. And you said that Barack Obama had something of a progressive foreign policy. And I would only point out the president that came after Obama and the president that came after John Quincy were both populist nut jobs. And there’s something terrifying in that observation, even though I’m probably not smart enough to explain it.

RK: I think Obama was in this tradition. He should have showed greater restraint. I don’t think we should have doubled down in Afghanistan and got as enmeshed in Syria, or in Yemen.

But I do think that there is a principled progressive foreign policy that embraces America’s unique leadership role in the world, that views America as an agent for good, that believes that we need American leadership over Chinese or Russian leadership.

NC: But what are the principles? This is what I’m still not getting. You said “principled.” And I don’t know what the principles are other than “humility,” which is an attitude not a principle.

RK: The principle is significant diplomacy and its support for international institutions, significant empowerment of regional players and regional actors to get multilateral solutions, significant economic engagement including increased foreign aid in an effective way.

NC: But in Yemen the actual, existing multilateral agreement is to force the Houthis back, not to stop the coalition from acting—which is exactly contrary to your preferred policy.

RK: In Yemen, what the principle is would have been no military intervention without constitutional approval.

NC: That’s the domestic side, though. I imagine you also oppose the Saudi Arabian and UAE action, not just want the U.S. to stop being complicit in it.

RK: I do. I do. Because I think they are more responsible for the bombings. And more responsible for not letting aid in there.

I think in terms of a progressive foreign policy … those are judgment calls.

But in terms of a progressive foreign policy, to start with, you need constitutional authority if we’re going to war. We should have great restraint in our military intervention, and use it only when directly attacked or if there is really an international coalition because of a grave humanitarian catastrophe which would then bring about an international coalition.

We should largely engage in diplomacy, empower regional actors, be willing to engage in diplomacy without preconditions in many of the tough spots of the world, and be willing to meet with leaders even who we disagree with. That’s why I supported the president meeting with Kim Jong Un. But we should have moral clarity when we have these engagements. Understand that Kim Jong Un has committed great atrocities.

We want to make sure that we can get to a solution that doesn’t threaten the United States. So I do think there is this set of progressive principles, which is very similar in philosophy to John Quincy Adams.

NC: Well, I’m really glad to get to talk to you. I think I have to go read some more John Quincy Adams.


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Nicholas Clairmont is the Life and Arts editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine and a freelance reporter and writer. Follow him on Twitter @nickclairmont1.