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Why Won't Elizabeth Warren Reveal Her Foreign Policy Positions?

Getty Images/Drew Angerer

On July 18, Elizabeth Warren gave a rousing speech at Netroots Nation, the annual gathering of liberal activists. She called for raising the minimum wage, strengthening regulation of Wall Street, and combatting climate change—all familiar pillars of her platform. As Warren exited the convention center in Detroit, a reporter with the conservative Capitol City Project asked for her opinion on Israel’s invasion of Gaza, which had begun that day. The Massachusetts senator looked for a moment like she might answer, then dashed to the elevator.

The video made the rounds on conservative websites, where Warren was accused of dodging the question. That's a stretch: She had no obligation to answer such a complicated question while rushing to her next obligation. But it points to a broader question, on the right and left, about her foreign policy positions: What are they? She's been silent a wide array of international issues, from the conflict in Ukraine to President Barack Obama’s use of drone strikes to the Libyan civil war. Even in her recently released book, A Fighting Chance, she rarely mentions foreign policy. And when I asked for an interview for this story, her office declined to comment.

Liberals, particularly those eager to see her run for president—if only to pull Hillary left—have largely overlooked this hole in Warren's resume. But her foreign policy positions are becoming harder to ignore. Five weeks after dodging the Gaza question, a constituent in Cape Cod questioned her vote to send $225 million in aid to Israel. “America has a very special relationship with Israel,” she responded. “Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren't many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world." The media, left and right, interpreted the comments as a blow to the left. “Elizabeth Warren Sides With Israel, Not With the Liberals Who Keep Daydreaming About Her,” said Slate. The conservative website Hot Air published an article titled, “Heartache for lefties: Elizabeth Warren defends Israel at Massachusetts town hall.”

Thing is, these comments should not have surprised anybody, as Warren's support for Israel is by far her clearest foreign policy position. “The U.S.-Israel relationship is rooted in shared values and common interests, based on a commitment to liberty, pluralism, and the rule of law,” her website reads. “These values transcend time, and they are the basis of our unbreakable bond.” She supports a two-state solution and opposes Palestine’s unilateral attempt for United Nations membership.

The media's response to Warren's remarks is telling: They were glad to finally have something, anything, to chew on. To an extent, that's the media's problem, not Warren's. The press treats her (almost hopefully) as a presidential candidate. Unless she declares for 2016, she shouldn't be expected to have a detailed opinion on every single foreign-policy issue facing America. Warren is as aware of this as anyone, and that's why her silence on almost everything except Israel is the most convincing evidence yet that Warren has no immediate designs on the White House.

In February, Warren gave the 2014 Whittington Lecture at Georgetown University in front of a supportive, yet quiet crowd. It was her first and so far only speech on foreign policy and she emphasized the moral and strategic costs of civilian casualties. “Every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause,” she said. “If we use excessive force or operate contrary to our counterinsurgency principles, tactical victories may prove to be strategic setbacks.” She called for “training programs that directly address civilian casualties” and greater transparency when they happen, including efforts to better track them. It was a pragmatic and realistic address, almost Obama-like.

But to no one's surprise, she didn't mention Obama’s favored counterterrorism tool: drone strikes. Warren, who had three brothers who served in the military, has long avoided the topic. It’s not the only issue that the freshman senator has been quiet on. She has said little about U.S. policy toward Russia, for instance—or Africa or Latin America for the matter. On Asia, she’s been equally quiet. She’s one of only a few senators not to have taken an overseas trip while in office. (She has a trip to Israel planned for after the midterms.) She has always supported President Obama’s timetable for withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan, but has not said whether she supports leaving residual troops there. In 2012, MassLive posed 10 questions to her and then-Senator Scott Brown on different foreign policy issues. Her responses were full of generic platitudes, offering almost no insight into her positions. “The United States must continue to stand up for the universal values this country was founded on, including free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement,” Warren answered when asked about China’s human rights abuses. “I support the U.S. government’s efforts to connect with the Chinese government on these issues, and I hope that both governments will continue to build those connections in the future.” Her website is no less illuminative. On Iran, she takes the radical position that “United States must take the necessary steps to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

Even her one clear foreign policy position, on Israel, doesn't shed much light on her broader worldview. Some liberals may be dismayed that her moderate stance, but as Paul Waldman points out at The American Prospect, her position is similar to that of almost every other politician on Capitol Hill. It’s boilerplate language from a senator who doesn’t spend much time thinking about foreign policy. “[Y]ou can call these comments conservative, in that they justify the Israeli government's actions without questioning the resulting civilian deaths,” Waldman writes. “But the stance she articulates is essentially that of the entire American political elite, both Democratic and Republican.” As for the $225 million in aid she supported, the measure passed unanimously in the Senate and 395-8 in the House. It’s not like her position sets her apart from the Democratic Party.

As a senator, though, Warren must vote on legislation that betrays her views. In September, she made her most consequential vote on foreign policy since taking office when she voted against the continuing resolution to fund the government because it authorized military aid to the moderate Syrian rebels. “Even if we could guarantee that our support goes to the right people, I remain unconvinced that training and equipping these forces will be effective in pushing back ISIS,” she said. It was her first significant break from the White House on the issue, and set herself apart from Hillary Clinton, who has long supported giving military aid to the Syrian rebels. The media noticed this was well. “Warren uses Syria measure to draw contrast with Clinton,” The Hill reported. MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown” ran a segment on it as well.

While Warren has focused on the minimum wage and student loan debt, Republicans like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Rick Perry have been bolstering their foreign policy credentials. Rubio, for instance has given multiple speeches on the need for a stronger U.S. military. On Thursday, Paul delivered a major foreign policy speech as he tries to shed the isolationist label that is unacceptable to the Republican base. Perry also just cut his trip to Europe short after the Ebola crisis flared up in Dallas, Texas. These are the actions you’d expect politicians to take in preparation for a presidential run. Warren has done none of them.

If she does for run president—and on Thursday she gave her most ambiguous answer on the question—she’ll have to take such steps soon. But if she stays in Congress, that won’t be necessary. Plenty of senators are well-versed on foreign affairs; there’s no need for Warren to take up that mantle, too. She sits on the Senate Banking Committee, Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and the Special Committee on Aging—none of them have jurisdiction over international issues. She already is the leading liberal voice on economic and inequality issues.

“She probably doesn’t see any real need to differentiate herself in that respect,” said Ruy Teixeira, a democratic strategist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “[Foreign policy] is not going to be her appeal to median left primary voters.”

In her February speech at Georgetown, this was readily apparent in the Q&A portion of the event. The moderator asked the first question about who Warren held responsible for civilian casualties—the president and Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commanders in the field or the soldiers. Warren didn’t answer directly, instead stating that we all have a responsibility to minimize such casualties.

After that, the moderator flipped through notecards with questions from the student audience. All of them were related to domestic policy: how to get more women elected to Congress, how to make Congress function more effectively, and what to do about student loan debt. While Warren’s answer to the initial question lasted just 88 seconds, she elaborated on the student questions for at least five minutes each. She was entirely comfortable giving those answers—and they were exactly what the audience wanted to hear.