Ilhan Omar seeks sanctions reform in her new foreign affairs leadership role

WASHINGTON — As Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., seeks to become a major voice on U.S. foreign policy, she is looking to make sanctions one of her hallmark issues.

Earlier this month, Omar, one of the members of “the Squad,” was named vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, providing her with a platform to oversee legislation on foreign military deployments, aid and diplomatic policy.

On Feb. 11, the same day her position on the subcommittee was announced, Omar led a group of Democrats who sent a letter advocating President Biden and his administration to broaden their review of existing sanctions on foreign governments. Biden had previously ordered an assessment of sanctions to determine whether they were impeding the global COVID relief effort.

The letter encouraged the Biden administration “to consider the humanitarian impacts of sanctions more broadly.”

In an interview with Yahoo News, Omar expanded on why she believes the U.S. needs to reconsider how it uses sanctions against other countries.

Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

“In so much of our foreign policy, we rely on muscle memory and a limited tool kit to decide the best course of action as we engage in countries. Too often, sanctioning regimes becomes ill-considered and incoherent, and counterproductive,” Omar said. “It’s important for us to have, I think, a way that we look at to see what the desired goal in our interactions are and think about — in worst-case scenarios — will it hurt the people that we are actually trying to help.”

Earlier this month, a group of human rights experts from the United Nations warned that sanctions were “killing people” by inhibiting pandemic aid to multiple countries, including Iran, Cuba, Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Venezuela. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, other experts suggested economic sanctions may actually increase human rights violations while contributing to dire economic conditions.

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Omar believes America’s diplomatic posture needs to be reimagined.

“In regards to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, obviously there are behaviors that they’re engaging in that we should be finding repulsive,” Omar said, citing their role in the conflict in Yemen. “We have not only changed our behavior towards them. … We’ve actually brought them to a point where they think they’re much closer and allied with us.”

Omar’s view of diplomacy has been shaped by her experience growing up as a refugee from war-torn Somalia.

“I survived a civil war. I witnessed firsthand the devastating consequences of war and the impact it has on millions of lives, communities and entire societies,” Omar said. “What drives me is making sure no child goes through what I went through.”

Asked to define her approach to foreign policy, Omar described “a vision that centers on the experience of people that are directly affected by conflict.”

“That takes into account the long-term effects of U.S. engagement in war and it’s sincere about our values regardless of the short-term political conveniences,” Omar said. “It’s been really important for me that people understand that this means reorienting our foreign affairs to focus on diplomacy and economic and cultural engagements.”

Omar also advocates broadening the foreign policy conversation to include countries and regions that don’t always dominate the headlines.

“It's really important that there are voices in Congress that are not narrowly focused on these issues that have maturity in the American psyche, like China and Russia and Cuba and the Middle East,” said Omar, “but also these other countries that are being impacted by our foreign policy and their populations that are being impacted by human rights violations from their own governments.”

Omar’s belief that both attention and conversation have been too focused on the Middle East, China and Russia also stems from personal experience as an African woman. “I’m someone who has seen the consequences of U.S. foreign policy for good and for bad for the global South,” she said.

While Omar clearly wants to change the discourse and push it into new territory, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — certainly a long-standing and high-profile foreign policy issue — has dominated the discussion of her tenure in Congress so far. Soon after she took office in 2019, she was accused of using anti-Semitic rhetoric in her criticism of U.S. support for Israel. Omar apologized for her choice of words, but the incident still rankles many of her critics.

Donald Trump
Then-President Donald Trump Jan. 3, 2020, shortly after the U.S. launched an airstrike in Baghdad that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Tommy Pigott, the Republican National Committee’s rapid response director, suggested that giving Omar a position on the subcommittee meant Democrats “are embracing her radical socialist policies as the mainstream positions of the Democrat Party.” He pointed to her past support for BDS, a campaign aimed at ending the occupation of the Palestinian territories, that some advocates of the Israeli government have called anti-Semitic. Pigott also cited Omar’s criticism of former President Trump’s decision last year to kill Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian military official.

“Rep. Ilhan Omar has a long history of supporting policies that harm the interests of the United States and our allies, including advocating for anti-Semitic [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] against Israel and calling the death of a top leader of terrorism an ‘assassination of a foreign official,’” Pigott said.

A spokesperson for Omar noted Soleimani’s killing was widely criticized by former national security officials and a number of European allies. A United Nations rapporteur also declared the strike unlawful.

As for Israel, Omar said she is eager to see a “more principled” conversation. When asked whether the lack of medical supplies and the relatively small supply of coronavirus vaccine in the Palestinian territories is an example of the need for sanctions reviews, Omar said that was looking at the situation backwards.

“We need to lead this conversation and have human rights be at the center of it all,” Omar said.

How much influence Omar will have on foreign policy remains to be seen. During the election, Biden positioned himself as a moderate alternative to the Democratic Party’s progressives, but since taking office, his administration has made it a point to solicit input from them.

Omar believes Biden has done more to work with the party’s left flank and called it a “relationship based on the common interest.”

“That’s because so many of the policies that we’ve been advocating for, the people that we’ve been fighting for, have given us the mandate to push for bold policies,” said Omar. “The administration knows that we wouldn’t get this opportunity to have the House, the Senate and the White House without our base.”


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