Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already slayed some dragons. On foreign policy, however, the Democratic candidate for New York’s 14th congressional district is wielding a dull sword. On a recent episode of PBS’ Firing Line, Ocasio-Cortez failed to explain comments she’d previously made about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Asked what she meant by “the occupation of Palestine,” she dodged the question, saying: “I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue.” As one of the most prominent self-identified democratic socialists in American politics, her stumble seems at odds with the political affiliation she’s publicly claimed. The website of the Democratic Socialists of America, of which she is a member, says it views “the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its inhumane siege of Gaza as the major barrier” to peace in the region.
It’s reasonable to assume that Ocasio-Cortez would be able to defend this relatively common position. But it’s become common in recent years for left-wing politicians to either botch or dodge foreign policy issues. During 2016’s Democratic presidential primary, Senator Bernie Sanders initially failed to articulate much of a foreign policy platform—a strange oversight given that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was a former secretary of state and a former senator who’d supported the invasion of Iraq. Sanders didn’t put forward a clearer foreign policy vision until 2017. “Foreign policy must take into account the outrageous income and wealth inequality that exists globally and in our own country,” he said during a 2017 speech at Westminster College.
Sanders may have helped spur 2018’s unusual slate of left-leaning congressional candidates. But his recent foreign policy commitments—reducing military spending, choosing diplomacy over military intervention—haven’t always filtered into the midterm races. This isn’t necessarily unusual for congressional races; candidates of all persuasions tend to campaign on issues of immediate importance to potential constituents. When left-wing candidates have looked beyond American borders, they have often done so on immigration and trade. Ayanna Pressley, who is challenging Democratic Representative Mike Capuano in Massachusetts’s 7th congressional district, offers an extraordinarily detailed immigration platform on her website that includes defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Randy Bryce, the viral star of Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, similarly calls for abolishing ICE and the passage of a clean DREAM Act.
Midterm elections, when there are no national candidates on the ballot, may not be the best stage to premiere a cogent left-wing foreign policy doctrine. But midterms are also necessarily referendums on the White House, especially during a new presidency and especially in the Trump era. The president has: announced the U.S. will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord; launched a trade war against China and imposed tariffs on allies like Canada and Mexico; restricted travel from several Muslim-majority countries; rolled back Obama’s Cuba opening; recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; alternated between nuclear threats and diplomacy with North Korea; and consistently defended Russia. On Sunday, he threatened to shut down the government later this year if he doesn’t receive funding for his border wall.
Which is to say, foreign policy isn’t just an important issue ahead of the 2020 presidential election, but right now. Candidates like Ocasio-Cortez, if she wins the general election in her heavily Democratic district, may find themselves in control of the House of Representatives—in a position, in other words, to exert some influence over the president. That makes the left’s foreign policy vacuum all the more glaring.
The problem isn’t so much that left-wing candidates for Congress haven’t spelled out foreign policy positions on their websites—though that’s largely true—but that there’s little infrastructure to supply them with ideas once they take office. “There’s been an enormous failure by the progressive left, in terms of foreign policy-making think tanks. I mean, there’s just barely anything,” a senior Democratic congressional staffer told The New Republic. “The Democratic establishment—and I don’t want to just use that term because I think it’s broader than that—hasn’t been invested in foreign policy-making in the way that they should have.”
Washington has a bipartisan interventionist bent, to varying degrees. George W. Bush started two disastrous wars that still aren’t over. Barack Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq, and took steps to wind down the U.S. military’s involvement there, but vastly expanded Bush’s drone war, killing an estimated 324 civilians. Obama used airstrikes to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi in 2011; Libya is now a failed state, an outcome that likely influenced Obama’s decision not to intervene in Syria. And congressional Democrats have voted along with Republicans at pivotal moments. Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran spurred significant opposition from hawks in his own party, and during the Bush years, few Democrats opposed the invasions of either Afghanistan or Iraq. Representative Barbara Lee, now running to become the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, cast the lone vote against the Authorization of Military Force in 2001.
But it’s not always clear what a left-wing alternative to establishment policy would look like. In a 2014 piece for Dissent, Princeton academic Michael Walzer noted that there are many lefts, though some positions do seem consistent. Socialists, social democrats, and left-tilting populists tend to favor a domestic focus—to call for an expansion of the welfare state, for instance, rather than costly military adventures. “This is what I will call the default position of the left: the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy. How many times have we argued against foreign adventures and unnecessary wars by insisting that our fellow citizens would do better to focus energy and resources on injustice at home?” Walzer wrote.
There have been a few recent efforts to translate left ideas into concrete foreign policy positions. Our Revolution, an electoral group founded by veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign, echoes Walzer’s thesis in its foreign policy platform. It urges officials to “move away from a policy of unilateral military action, and toward a policy of emphasizing diplomacy, and ensuring the decision to go to war is a last resort.” It also demands the closure of Guantanamo Bay and encourages fair trade and the provision of humanitarian assistance; its solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is to ask Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist and for Israel to end its blockade of Gaza and its settlement activity on Palestinian land.
Not all left-wing candidates this year are skimping on foreign policy. Kaniela Ing, a Native Hawaiian who is running to represent the state’s 1st congressional district as a democratic socialist, tweeted a video condemning interventionism. “We know that whether it’s a war on drugs or a war on terror, or whatever reason the White House makes up, it’s a war for profit and it’s a war causing indigenous people all over the world to suffer, just like we are in Hawaii,” he said. On Monday, he told me he sees a “transition” among progressives on the subject of interventionist wars. “Taking care of folks beyond our borders is part of caring for the most vulnerable,” he said, adding, “In terms of exactly what I’d vote on, it would be very very difficult for me support a war that doesn’t involve people on our shores attacking us.”
Rashida Tlaib, who is running to replace retired Representative John Conyers in Michigan’s 13th congressional district, expressed similar political commitments. “My approach to foreign policy will be guided by the same values that drive my approach to domestic policy: Empathy, understanding, and respect,” Tlaib said through a campaign spokesman. “I’m firmly anti-war, and I think that’s in large part influenced by my perspective as a Palestinian-American and having family and friends throughout the Middle East. I’ve seen firsthand how devastating military conflict is, and I think if more members of Congress actually knew the realities of war and regime change, they wouldn’t be so callous about dropping bombs in distant countries. We should be solving our problems with diplomacy, not by increasing our military spending budget.”
But even with these candidates, the message is rather one-note. There is more to foreign policy than war, and thus, there must be more to candidates’ foreign policy positions than anti-interventionism—to “end reckless wars,” as Ing’s website puts it, or to create a “peace economy,” as Ocasio-Cortez’s does. But expanding their platforms will require help, and it’s not clear to whom they can turn. Candidates to the left of the Democratic Party on foreign policy are likely also to the left of think tanks like the Center for American Progress, which backed Obama’s drone strikes and some airstrikes. There are no think tanks of analogous size and influence committed to crafting left-wing foreign policy.
“There is just no comparison between the left and right. I mean, I can think of at least five or six different right-wing think tanks that just do foreign policy, whereas there’s nothing like that for progressives,” the congressional staffer said. “That’s the huge problem.”