Web Only / Features » September 10, 2019
A Close Look at Kamala Harris’ Hawkish Foreign Policy
Harris has little to say on the subject. But her record speaks volumes.
Kamala Harris has repeatedly depicted the North Korean peace process as a nefarious example of Trump cozying up to a dictator—rather than a de-escalation Korean people desperately want.
Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has not made war and militarism a centerpiece of her presidential campaign. She’s given no major “foreign policy” speech, and she did not respond to a series of simple yes-or-no questions about global politics from FiveThirtyEight (Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg were the only other major Democratic candidates to decline). On her campaign website, Harris’ only statement on “foreign policy” is just over 500 words—and it’s more a screed against Trump (he’s mentioned seven times) than a cogent vision. In the realm of international politics, she’s probably best known for saying in January that “we cannot conduct our foreign policy through tweets,” a statement that conveys nothing, other than opposition to Trump.
But this campaign branding doesn’t mean Harris has no “foreign policy.” Just looking at war (without getting into other critical foreign policy issues, from climate to trade agreements to covert operations), Harris has discernable stances. A close look at her record shows that, to the extent she has taken positions, they are defined by her close relationship with the right-wing lobby outfit American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea and Russia, and reluctance to cosponsor key pieces of legislation aimed at preventing war with Venezuela and North Korea. On issues of militarism, she’s squarely in line with—and sometimes on the right of—a hawkish Democratic establishment.
A friend of AIPAC
It’s now less palatable for Democrats to be publicly cozy with AIPAC, due to growing solidarity with Palestinians among the base of the Democratic Party, and discomfort with AIPAC ally Benjamin Netanyahu’s open alignment with Trump. Yet, Harris has forged close ties with the organization, which advocated for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and opposed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. In March 2017, she told the AIPAC Policy Conference, “Let me be clear about what I believe. I stand with Israel because of our shared values, which are so fundamental to the founding of both our nations.” At the 2018 conference, Harris gave an off-the-record speech, in which she boasted, “As a child, I never sold Girl Scout cookies, I went around with a JNFUSA box collecting funds to plant trees in Israel.” The JNFUSA, or Jewish National Fund, has directly participated in land theft and ethnic cleansing campaigns targeting Palestinians and Bedouins.
In 2019, Harris announced that she’d skip AIPAC’s conference (along with Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and four other candidates) but then, a few weeks later, hosted AIPAC leaders in her office to talk about “the right of Israel to defend itself,” as she put it.
These positions are not just theoretical. As Harris bragged in her 2017 AIPAC talk, “[The] first resolution I co-sponsored as a United States senator was to combat anti-Israel bias at the United Nations and reaffirm that the United States seeks a just, secure and sustainable two-state solution.” She was referring to S.Res.6, introduced by Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in January 2017, which objected to a UN Security Council Resolution adopted in 2016 that declared Israeli settlements a violation of international law. By contrast, Sanders and Warren did not cosponsor the resolution. It never came to a vote.
In November 2017, Harris met with Netanyahu, and, according to the Israeli prime minister, discussed “the potential for deepening cooperation in water management, agriculture, cyber security and more.” She was not among 10 Democrats who, nine days later, signed a letter urging Netanyahu not to demolish the Palestinian village of Susiya and the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar.
To her credit, in February, Harris opposed a bill that would have criminalized the Palestinian-led movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel (BDS). However, she has historically opposed BDS and, like many Israel hawk Democrats, voted against the bill only on “free speech” grounds.
Goading Trump: North Korea and Russia
Polls show Koreans overwhelmingly support the peace process and want an end of the 69-year-old Korean War, to which the U.S. is still officially party. According to a Gallup Korea poll conducted in June, two days after the Trump-Kim summit, 66% of South Koreans supported the summit and only 11% saw it in a negative light.
Yet, Democrats—like Republicans—have a history of hostility towards peace processes, typified in Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” in which he ratcheted up sanctions and espionage against North Korea while steering clear of meaningful peace talks. The foreign policy consensus in both parties has been to use the still-ongoing Korean war as justification to maintain a massive military presence in South Korea—including the largest overseas U.S. military base, Camp Humphreys—despite long-standing local opposition to the base over pollution and sexual violence, among other complaints. Under Trump, Democratic establishment leaders have opportunistically opposed the peace process whenever Trump has supported it, showing little moral compass other than opposition to Trump—even as he has proven erratic.
Kamala Harris has fallen in line, repeatedly depicting the North Korean peace process as a nefarious example of Trump cozying up to a dictator—rather than a de-escalation Korean people desperately want. In May, for example, amid climbing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, and days after U.S. seizure of a North Korean ship, she said, “We cannot put our arms and embrace this North Korean dictator in the way this president has done.” And in June, during the Democratic debate, she declared, “You want to talk about North Korea, a real threat in terms of its nuclear arsenal. But what does [Trump] do? He embraces Kim Jong-un, a dictator, for the sake of a photo op.” The implication of this statement is that engaging Kim Jong-un in talks makes the world more dangerous, when—in fact—it’s the only path to formally ending the Korean War and reunifying families. Social movements in South Korea have long been calling for demilitarization, and they do not have the luxury of waiting for more desirable negotiating parties. Unless Democrats want to subject Koreans to many more years of escalation, isolation and family separation, they should support peace now. As Simone Chun, a Korean activist and academic, told The Nation in February, “Reconciliation and peace between North and South Korea is a gravely historic matter that should be for the Korean people to decide… It cannot be allowed to be reduced to a bargaining chip in the struggle for one-upmanship between Republicans and Democrats.”
In addition, goading Trump on North Korea is a dangerous game. He has shown himself willing to turn at a dime and threaten North Korea with “total destruction,” as he did in September 2017 in a showdown over the nuclear arsenal. Such threats are not theoretical: During the Korean War in 1950 to 1953, the U.S. killed about 10% of North Korea’s population, a fact that is often overlooked in U.S. history books. In February 2018, Harris did sign a letter to Trump, along with Sanders and Warren, saying he lacked the legal authority to preemptively strike North Korea. But her public needling of Trump risks this very outcome.
Harris’ fear-mongering over the peace process contributes to a political climate in which support for de-escalation in Korea is seen as apology for dictatorship. Christine Ahn, the founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, which advocates an end to the Korean War, tells In These Times, “Instead of perpetuating tired old tropes about North Korea that close the political space for diplomacy, candidates should be attacking Trump from the left and outlining a bold vision for ending America's oldest war.”
Harris is not a cosponsor of the S.2016 - No Unconstitutional Strike Against North Korea Act of 2017, while Warren and Sanders are. Perhaps most importantly, in July 2017, she voted in favor of bipartisan legislation to bundle together sanctions against North Korea, Russia and Iran. Warren also voted in favor of this legislation; Sanders is the only person in the House and Senate who caucuses with the Democrats who voted against it (however, he said he supports sanctions against North Korea and Russia but voted no because he opposes sanctions on Iran). Yet it is precisely the U.S. government’s policies of sanctions, military muscle flexing, and isolation that have worsened tensions and eroded the political space for de-escalation.
Harris uses similarly bellicose language towards Russia, repeatedly referring to Russia as an “adversary.” She has done so in a context in which Democrats have used their overwhelming focus on Russia in the era of Trump primarily to pass a significant military buildup.
Harris voted for and heralded the passage of the $677 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2018, which explicitly targeted Russia. The even larger $716 billion NDAA for 2019 also invoked Russia and China to justify increased military spending, and included a nuclear buildup that can only be seen as an attempt to hedge against Russia (the U.S. and Russia account for more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons). Democrats used the specter of Russian interference to argue in favor of its passage. While Harris was among the handful of Democratic Senators who voted against the 2019 NDAA, her anti-Russia rhetoric nonetheless contributed to the climate that allowed it to pass the Democratic House.
Perhaps most importantly, in July 2017, Harris voted in favor of the aforementioned sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea. While she didn’t release a statement about this vote, Democratic leaders cited the need to counter Putin as a key reason to vote “yes.”
Overseas wars: Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen
Harris’ campaign website says, “She’ll end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and protracted military engagements in places like Syria. But she’ll do so responsibly – by consulting our Generals and Ambassadors, not via tweet.” When it comes to actual troop withdrawals, however, she shows skittishness. In an interview with The New York Times published in June, she said, “I believe we should bring back our troops from Afghanistan, but I also believe that we need to have a presence there in terms of supporting what the leaders of Afghanistan want to do in terms of having peace in that region, and certainly suppressing any possibility of ISIS or any other terrorist organization from gaining steam.”
As we saw during the Obama administration, anything short of an unambiguous call to end the U.S. occupation can mean protracted war. Obama repeatedly claimed throughout his tenure that he was bringing the war to a “responsible end”—while he continued U.S. intervention and dominance, and secured a bilateral security agreement in 2014 that locked in another decade of intervention. In July, the United Nations reported that, in the first half of 2019, Afghan and U.S. forces were responsible for killing more civilians than the Taliban.
When Trump announced in December 2018 that he would withdraw about half of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Syria, Harris found fault with the decision, declaring in January, “My concern is that when we make decisions about what we will do in terms of our military presence, much less our diplomatic priorities, that we do that in a way that will involve consultation with our military leaders, in a way that would involve some kind of consultation, or at least outreach to our allies around the globe.”
When Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) then issued a resolution condemning Trump’s announcement, Harris did vote against it, along with pretty much every Democratic running for president (Trump has not followed through on full troop removals).
Harris, like many Democrats, was also slow to get on board with calls to end the U.S.-Saudi-UAE war on Yemen, which is now four and a half years old and has left the country in the grips of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations. She cosponsored a withdrawal bill introduced by Sanders in 2018, but not until nine months after it was introduced, and only after a public outcry over Saudi Arabia’s killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Harris deserves credit for cosponsoring the 2019 version of the bill, S.J.Res.7, in February, just a few days after it was introduced.
However, Harris told the Council on Foreign Relations in August that Saudi Arabia remains an important ally, suggesting she is not willing to fundamentally break with the long-standing—and globally destructive—special relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. “The United States and Saudi Arabia still have mutual areas of interest, such as counterterrorism, where the Saudis have been strong partners,” she said. “And we should continue to coordinate on that front. But we need to fundamentally reevaluate our relationship with Saudi Arabia, using our leverage to stand up for American values and interests.” The U.S. and Saudi partnership on “counter-terrorism” has played a role in some of the most belligerent acts of our times, from the disastrous military intervention into Yemen to ongoing provocations towards Iran to protracted intervention in Syria.
Another question is whether Harris would loudly denounce war and hold the line against new U.S. invasions. So far, unlike Warren and Sanders, she has failed to cosponsor S.J.Res.11, which “prohibit the unauthorized use of United States Armed Forces in hostilities with respect to Venezuela.”
To the Right of Obama: The Iran Deal
While Obama is no paragon of peace, attacks on his Iran Deal aimed at provoking war have threatened to make U.S. policy even more confrontational. Harris, like many Democrats, publicly supported reentering the Iran Deal after Trump jettisoned it (though she has repeatedly said she’d like to “strengthen” the deal further, a common talking point employed by those who oppose the Iran deal from the right). Furthermore, she cosponsored both a bill and an amendment to the 2020 defense budget, each introduced by Tom Udall, aimed at preventing unauthorized military operations against Iran.
But there are also signs Harris reflects a shift of most Democrats to the right of the Obama administration when it comes to Iran. In June 2017, she supported the “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act,” introduced by Republican Bob Corker, which would have imposed sanctions on any person or foreign government that the State Department determined does business with an entity connected to Iran’s ballistic missile program. Harris voted for this bill even though it went against the wishes of former Obama Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned, “If we become super provocative in ways that show the Iranian people there has been no advantage to this, that there is no gain, and our bellicosity is pushing them into a corner, that’s dangerous and that could bring a very different result.” Sanders was the only person who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate to vote against the Corker bill. (Warren voted for it, but did not cosponsor).
Whether she advertises it or not, Harris has a record on militarism. But unlike her history as a law-and-order prosecutor who drafted and enforced brutal truancy laws, her foreign policy record has attracted far less attention.
War is the arena where presidents have the most power to act without Congress, and is the area where a potential Harris administration would likely have the most impact on the 96 percent of the world that doesn’t get to vote in U.S. elections. Her record deserves close consideration.
This piece expands on subjects discussed in ”Finding The Lesser Evil,” published in Jacobin's summer 2019 issue. Daniel Fernandez contributed research to this article.
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Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.
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