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Ilhan Omar Is Already Changing Washington

Banned by Israel and demonized by Trump, she's been fighting business as usual in Congress' hidebound foreign policy club.


This week, Donald Trump opened a new front in his war against women of color in Congress. “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” the president tweeted Thursday morning, referring to Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, two young Muslim Democrats who make up half of the progressive congressional “squad” that Trump last month wished would “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” This time, Trump was even less nuanced in assailing Omar and Tlaib: “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds… They are a disgrace!”

On one hand, such attacks aren’t new—particularly to Omar, who is in her first term as a representative from Minneapolis and is perhaps the most controversial of all the high-profile progressive Democrats, which include her fellow “squad” members (Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley), the co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus (Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan), and champions of rethinking U.S. intervention abroad (Ro Khanna). Last month, Omar introduced a resolution arguing that “all Americans have the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad, as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.” Though it doesn’t mention Israel or Palestine by name, the resolution was meant to protect the speech of advocates of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes economic pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and grant full equality to Arab citizens. Omar’s political opponents and some members of the media quickly characterized her measure as an “anti-Israel resolution.” National Republican Senatorial Committee Adviser Matt Whitlock tweeted that her resolution compared Israel to Nazi Germany, complete with a screenshot of the resolution’s text, which clearly showed that it didn’t.

In this week’s case, however, Trump’s insta-published line of attack quickly became foreign policy. Israeli officials confirmed that they planned to bar Omar and Tlaib from entering the country on a visit because of “suspected provocations and promotion of BDS.” “We won’t allow those who deny our right to exist in this world to enter Israel,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely announced shortly after Trump’s tweet, adding (in a manner that sounded not unlike Trump), “In principle, this is a very justified decision.”

The irony of that decision is rich, particularly in the case of Omar, who sits on the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, which helps dole out roughly $4 billion a year in U.S. aid to Israel. Her presence in one of the government’s most influential old clubs has produced plenty of heat on right-wing airwaves, but it’s the light—her potential to steer her country and her party toward a different foreign policy—that’s far more interesting. Can a legislator like Omar bring change to the way foreign affairs matters are conducted on the Hill without being overwhelmed by controversy? Or is the controversy just a sign that such change is already underway?

Certain dogmas in American foreign policy have gone, if not unquestioned, then at least largely accepted by both major political parties in Washington for generations: The United States is a strong ally of Israel; the United States chooses Saudi Arabia over Iran; the United States military is a force for good in the world. That’s slowly changing, though, thanks to opposition to Trump’s presidency, as well as the elevation of a new generation of progressive politicians who are fed up with the usual foreign policy.

Omar, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia, sits on House Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee for Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, as well as the Subcommittee for Oversight and Investigations. She’s sponsored some legislation, including a May resolution that would bring sanctions against Brunei officials who implement a draconian new penal code that prescribes death for homosexuality and adultery. But she hasn’t enacted much tangible legislative change.

“In terms of actual legislation and what’s been happening for the first sixth months, I wouldn’t ascribe a significant personal impact to [Omar],” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a progressive group that describes itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace, and committed to a two-state solution, told The New Republic. (J Street supports Omar’s resolution, which Ben-Ami described as “well-crafted.”) Even so, Omar has found ways to move the conversation. She has “been able to question witnesses at hearings, [and] bring questions that other folks haven’t been asking,” he added.

By far the most famous example was her February questioning of old Republican foreign policy hand Elliott Abrams, whom the Trump administration chose as its envoy to Venezuela despite—or perhaps because of—a checkered past. “Mr. Abrams, in 1991 you pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress regarding the Iran-Contra affair, for which you were later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush,” Omar said. “I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony you give today to be truthful.”

Abrams asked to respond. Omar said that it wasn’t a question.

“Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua?” she later asked, referring to his involvement in the anti-communist Central American juntas at the heart of the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal.

It wasn’t just a tougher interrogation than many expected; it was Omar starting from the premise that a member of the political elite, a longtime diplomat, and a senior fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations had no business being in another position of power. “That’s a very key moment,” said Matthew Duss, foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders. “I would compare that in some ways to what Senator Sanders said in the 2016 primary about Henry Kissinger.” (Sanders saidKissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.”) There is an understanding in Washington, Duss said, that certain politicos shouldn’t be questioned or challenged, because they’re part of the club. “These people should not be part of any club,” he said. “And a club that treats them as members of good standing is a club that really needs to reexamine its rules of membership.”

Mainstream Democrats have spent much of the summer downplaying differences between the politics of the “squad” and their own. That is also the case on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Rep. Omar brings a unique perspective based on her powerful life story,” Representative Ami Bera, the California Democrat who chairs Foreign Affairs’ oversight subcommittee—and the only Democrat on the committee, including Omar, to comment on the record for this piece directly—said in a statement, adding that Omar “has been a valuable addition” to the committee. But, Bera added, “I don’t necessarily believe she’s moving the conversation ‘left.’ We would be covering these important issues regardless of the committee makeup.”

But progressive observers outside Congress push back on that narrative a bit. “Congresswoman Omar has absolutely moved the conversation forward on how we build a more values-driven, morally just foreign policy,” said Kate Kizer, policy director of Win Without War, a network of left foreign policy activists and organizations. “She has been fearless in speaking truth to power, whether that’s questioning why our government advocates for human rights only when convenient, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and Palestine, or holding officials like Elliot Abrams accountable for their role in past human rights atrocities.”

Others point to her commitment to challenging authoritarian regimes, particularly in the Muslim world. “Traditionally seen allies—like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, whose authoritarian and human rights abuses the U.S. ignores in exchange for cheap oil and regional stability—their narrative is disrupted by Ilhan Omar,” Robert McCaw, government affairs director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said. “American Muslims are developing their own unique perspective on American foreign affairs, [and] Ilhan Omar has an authentic agenda in the Foreign Affairs Committee that looks to carry the voice of the Muslim community.”

“I think she’s absolutely broadening—working with others—broadening the boundaries of what we discuss and how we discuss it,” said Duss, the Sanders adviser. That, he said, is “unquestionably positive” in the push for a more progressive American foreign policy.

None of this is to say that Omar puts forth perfect progressive policy or messaging. Her views on U.S. responsibility for Venezuela’s democratic and food crises, for example, have been criticized by some as apologia for strong-arm leader Nicolás Maduro, whose record on human rights is abysmal and separable from arguments about U.S. interventions there.

Nor did Omar do herself or the country any favors last February, when she tweeted that support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins.” Critics have pounced on far more nuanced critiques of Israeli lobbying and financial influence in Washington; Omar was savaged for what her detractors called an anti-Semitic trope. (Her spokesperson, who is Jewish, later responded that “anti-Semitism is a right-wing force.”)

An argument can be made that the celebrity and controversy that surrounds Omar is a distraction from her work and progressive foreign policy goals. What this argument misses, however, is that much of the controversy exists because of her progressive foreign policy goals: because she criticizes Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and the litany of Elliott Abramses that regularly shape aggressive U.S. policies behind closed doors. None of these are particularly radical viewpoints in themselves, but they don’t have much recent precedent in Congress, either. “This is what rethinking American foreign policy looks like,” Duss said. “You’re going to see pushback from the establishment.”

But in any case, substantive policy disagreements aren’t why Omar’s sound-bites catch the special ire of Trump and white-nationalist broadcasters like Tucker Carlson. They’re less concerned with what she does than what she represents to the right-wing base: a foreign-born Muslim American woman wearing a headscarf in halls of power long dominated by old white men. She is a human lightning rod for bad-faith attacks.

And this week, she’s also getting that same treatment from Israel, a foreign nation that relies heavily on her committee’s assistance.

“It is an affront that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, under pressure from President Trump, would deny entry to representatives of the U.S. government. Trump’s Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected Members of Congress. Denying entry into Israel not only limits our ability to learn from Israelis, but also to enter the Palestinian territories,” Omar said in a statement her office sent out on Thursday.

“As a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, it is my job to conduct oversight of foreign aid from the United States of America and to legislate on human rights practices around the world,” the statement continued. “The irony of the ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East making such a decision is that it is both an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation.”

She and Tlaib aren’t the first U.S. legislators to suffer such indignity in the Trump era. Two years ago, New Hampshire Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and proponent of sanctions on his regime, was denied a visa to visit Russia on a congressional delegation. The Russian embassy in Washington stated that she was on a “blacklist,” and the two Republican senators she’d planned to accompany to Russia canceled their trip in protest.

In Shaheen’s case, Trump stayed silent, hewing to his practice of not criticizing the Kremlin. In Omar and Tlaib’s case, Trump actively lobbied Israel—another democracy that’s straining under the weight of a mercurial and conspiratorial leader under criminal suspicion—to treat the pair of congresswomen, in essence, as Jew-haters, a ratcheting up of the fact-free rhetoric that has targeted the “squad” as un-American and led to fears for their safety. “When you’re breaking glass ceilings,” McCaw said, “shards are gonna try to cut you on the way down.”

Despite the dangers—and the seemingly endless supply of glass ceilings and subsequent falling shards—it seems clear that Trump, Congress, and the Democratic establishment will all have to contend with Omar’s challenge on foreign policy for some time to come. “Minnesota … will have a hard time putting [Omar] back in office,” Trump crowed over Twitter this week. Omar defeated her Republican opponent last year by 56 percentage points.