After Ilhan Omar was elected to Congress in 2018, she explained why one of her first priorities as a member of the US House of Representatives was to serve on the Committee on Foreign Affairs. While the Minnesota Democrat was intent on representing her constituents in Minneapolis, and on addressing all the pressing domestic policy concerns that tend to dominate coverage of Congress, she told me, “You can’t really speak to domestic policy without first having a conversation about our foreign policy.”
This understanding has always been central to Omar’s congressional service. And it has made her one of the most engaged and thoughtful members of the House when it comes to addressing the human side of international conflicts and challenges, which the chamber so frequently neglects.
On Thursday, when House Republicans engineered a 218-211 vote to remove Omar from the committee on which she has served for four years, the rhetoric on the floor was about old grievances long resolved and about contemporary political positioning. Little serious attention was paid to why Omar sought to serve on a committee that many members show little interest in, and why she sought to keep her seat in the face of withering attacks from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his allies.
As a child refugee from Somalia who embraced the opportunity to become a US citizen, Omar maintains a deep faith in the decency of the American people and in their willingness to respond to what she calls “human aspirations in regard to our foreign policy.” While she has at times been controversial, and while she is the first to admit that has made mistakes along the way, Omar’s service on the Foreign Affairs Committee has always been rooted in a belief that America can and should excel as an advocate for international human rights, diplomacy, and cooperation.
Kicking her off the committee won’t change that. Omar will continue to be one of the House’s highest-profile advocates for a just and humane foreign policy. As she said on the House floor Thursday, “My leadership and voice will not be diminished if I am not on this committee for one term. My voice will get louder and stronger.”
What has changed is that the committee has lost a diligent member who worked to forge alliances across lines of partisanship and ideology, and who placed humanitarian concerns at the heart of debates about everything from immigration policies, responses to the pandemic, and the global struggle to alleviate poverty.
The outsized role that the United States plays in the world has always concerned Omar, who, as she said in her speech on Thursday, came to this country “as a refugee from the horrors of a civil war, someone who spent her childhood in a refugee camp,” and went on to become one of the first two Muslim women elected to the House. She knows about global affairs from experience, and that experience tells her that bringing a voice for diplomacy, cooperation, and the advancement of human rights into congressional debates about foreign policy is critical to averting wars, addressing multilateral challenges such as climate change, and balancing US budget priorities so that human needs are not neglected in order to fund an ever-expanding military-industrial complex. “For me, it isn’t just the mere conversations, it’s the kind of connected world that I see, and how—through policy—we can advance that connection or dismantle that connection,” she told me during one of several extended discussions we’ve had over the years about her committee work. “The advancement of that connection gets us closer to the kind of utopian world that I want—have always wanted—to live in, and want for everybody to live in.”
Omar’s approach made an impression on former House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Eliot Engel, the New York Democrat who welcomed the Minnesotan to the committee in 2019, even though they had profoundly different views regarding Israel and Palestine. Shortly after she joined the committee, Omar’s remarks about Israel sparked a controversy that saw not just Republicans but many Democrats claiming the new member of Congress was anti-Semitic. There were demands for her removal from the committee. Even when it was pointed out that Republicans were mischaracterizing her remarks, few Democrats defended Omar. But Engel pushed back against the calls to boot her from the committee. While he criticized some things Omar had said, the chairman noted her apology and refocused the discussion, telling CNN, “It’s very important that we keep our eye on the prize, and I think that whenever there is hatred being spewed, or again, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, I think we have to speak out.”
Over time, other committee members—including several Republicans—came to respect Omar as a colleague who was prepared to collaborate with people she disagreed with, to engage with advocates from all sides of contentious issues, and to pour her energies into researching conflicts that got little attention from most House members.
Yet, instead of considering the whole of Omar’s service, McCarthy and the new Republican majority targeted her this year as part of an ugly political gambit.
“This is about vengeance. This is about spite. This is about politics,” said Massachusetts Democrat James McGovern, an expert on global hunger and poverty issues who is his party’s ranking member on the powerful House Rules Committee.
McGovern was referring to the saga that began in 2021, when the then-Democratic House majority stripped GOP Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona of their committee assignments after they each made remarks that were considered not just extreme but threatening to fellow House members. McCarthy promised during the 2022 campaign that he would exact revenge on Greene and Gosar’s behalf by removing Omar from her committee. Now, he has done just that, along with ejecting Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from the House Intelligence Committee. At the same time, McCarthy has handed both Greene and Gosar plum committee assignments.
Despite McCarthy’s very public admission that Omar was being targeted for retribution, Republicans attempted to portray her ouster as a sober and necessary matter. Representative Max Miller, the Ohio Republican who sponsored the resolution to remove his colleague from the committee, claimed, “This is not about politics or engaging in a tit-for-tat with the Democrats.” Complaining about remarks Omar made in the first weeks of her House tenure, and for which she quickly apologized, he charged that “Congresswoman Omar clearly cannot be an objective decision-maker on the Foreign Affairs Committee given her biases against Israel and against the Jewish people.”
But a long list of Jewish American groups rejected that line of attack, and the broader idea that any criticism of Israel renders a member of Congress beyond the pale. In a statement, J Street, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, the New Israel Fund, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Habonim Dror North America, T’ruah Ameinu, and Americans for Peace Now said that the GOP move against Omar was “based on false accusations that she is antisemitic or anti-Israel.”
“We may not agree with some of Congresswoman Omar’s opinions, but we categorically reject the suggestion that any of her policy positions or statements merit disqualification from her role on the committee,” argued the groups, adding that the campaign against Omar, who has backed resolutions condemning anti-Semitism, is “clearly motivated by partisanship, not principle.” After Thursday’s vote, Hadar Susskind, the president of Americans for Peace Now, a group that for decades has worked closely with Israeli peace groups, warned that “in addition to fanning the flames of Islamophobia in the United States by conflating legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism and weaponizing accusations of antisemitism to stifle debate around both American and Israeli policies, this decision undermines the vitally important fight against antisemitism.”
Omar suggested that the real Republican motivation for Thursday’s move was a desire to limit the range of debate about foreign affairs—and who gets to participate in it. “I am a Muslim. I am an immigrant. And, interestingly, from Africa,” the Minnesotan told the House on Thursday. “Is anyone surprised that I am a target? Is anyone surprised I am somehow deemed unworthy to speak about American foreign policy?”
Many of the Democrats who united in their defense of Omar echoed her concerns, suggesting that, no, they were not surprised. The Republicans were not about to be shamed into reversing course. They had the majority, and they used it.
That does not mean, however, that Omar is going to be marginalized.
Republicans, in their determination to extract political retribution and tarnish Omar’s reputation, have removed her from the committee on which she has so conscientiously served. But anyone who thinks that the representative from Minnesota’s advocacy on behalf of human rights, international collaboration, and a foreign policy rooted in morality will be silenced knows very little about Ilhan Omar.