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The Next Big Idea: Ilhan Omar’s Pathway to Peace

We need a foreign policy as big and progressive as the Green New Deal.

The Next Big Idea: Ilhan Omar’s Pathway to Peace

Another world is possible. Indeed, it is more necessary now than ever. But we won’t get there without a road map.

So Representative Ilhan Omar has drawn it.

The congresswoman has introduced a comprehensive plan for reorienting US relations with the world. Her Pathway to PEACE (Progressive, Equitable, and Constructive Engagement) initiative packages seven bills that would build a new internationalism that is aimed at “centering human rights, justice and peace as the pillars of America’s engagement in the world, and making military action a last resort.”

Anyone who has paid attention to US foreign policy in recent decades knows that Omar is proposing is a radical rethink. But the Minnesota Democrat refuses to accept that this country cannot change. Since her election to the House in 2018, she has positioned herself as a member of Congress who is ready to challenge the military-industrial complex, human rights abuses, and the undue influence of corporate power on our foreign policy. She is outspoken and this has made her a controversial figure whose statements have drawn rebukes from President Trump, House Republicans, and, early in her tenure, a number of Democratic colleagues. Yet Omar is undaunted.

Omar goes big and invites others to do the same. I asked her how big and she replied, “When I think about foreign policy, we need something equivalent to the Green New Deal.”

To that end, she has in recent months been seeking approval of the pieces of legislation that she has identified as the Pathway to PEACE:

The Global Peacebuilding Act. Authorizes a transfer of $5 billion from the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations budget to the State Department to create a new, multi-lateral Global Peacebuilding Fund.

The Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act: Establishes red lines based on internationally recognized gross violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law. Once a country crosses those lines, it automatically triggers a prohibition on security aid of any kind, arms sales including those controlled by the Commerce Dept. (tear gas, etc.), and exchanges with U.S. law enforcement.

The Global Migration Agreement Act: Instructs the State Department and US Ambassador to the UN to take the lead on creating a binding international agreement on global migration.

The Congressional Oversight of Sanctions Act: Requires a joint resolution of Congress to approve sanctions issued under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) within 60 days of being back in session after the sanctions are announced, and requires Congressional approval to renew existing sanctions.

The YouthBuild International Act: Replicates the highly successful domestic YouthBuild program—which helps disadvantaged youth obtain the education and employment skills they need to achieve economic self-sufficiency.

The Resolution on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC): The United States is the only country in the world not to have ratified the UNCRC. Protecting the rights of children is fundamental, and we should be a world leader on this issue, which we can’t be unless we’re a state party to the Convention.

The Resolution on the Rome Statute, and the International Criminal Court (ICC): The United States has been a leader on international criminal justice since Nuremberg, and our hostility towards the ICC has always been at odds with our commitment to the rule of law, accountability, and to the principle that no one is above the law. We need to send a strong message in support of international criminal justice.

That may sound radical to some, and Omar does not shy away from the word. But she is quick to argue that her approach is ultimately more practical than that of the hawks with whom she has frequently wrangled as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“It’s not the kind of utopia that is unrealistic,” she says, “but a world that has respect for one another’s differences, a world that has people recognizing each other’s humanity, a world that recognizes that my child’s pain is another child’s pain.”

Omar grounds her ambitions for a new way of relating to the world in her own experience.

“As a child, I survived war. I have firsthand experience with how destructive war can be—and I see how our continuous involvement in foreign conflicts is not making our country any safer. It is costing lives, destroying future hopes and dreams, and damaging our reputation in the world,” says the native of Somalia who was forced to flee civil war at the age of 8 and spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to the United States. “I believe in a world where there are no young girls living through war, and no nations that are being destroyed. I believe that when the United States says it champions human rights, democracy, and peace, we should mean it. America has led the world in standing up for human rights before. It’s time for us to seize the mantle of leadership again.”

This idea of seizing the mantle of leadership from the moral and practical high ground has drawn praise from across the political spectrum.

Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama who went on to cochair National Security Action, says, “Congresswoman Omar is putting forward an ambitious and comprehensive package that outlines progressive approaches to some of the most important issues facing the United States and our world today—from global migration to the overuse of sanctions; from the promotion of human rights to the protection of the most vulnerable.”

John Glaser, the director of Foreign Policy Studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, says, “Representative Ilhan Omar’s Pathway to Peace proposal is a welcome addition to the public discussion on global peace and security.”

“Refreshingly,” explains Glaser, “the proposal calls for more robust congressional oversight of economic sanctions imposed unilaterally on other countries by the executive branch. Equally important, it calls for legislation that would impose conditions on providing security aid and arms to regimes that commit human rights abuses. Finally, Pathway to PEACE encourages the US to bring itself into conformity with international standards and conventions—to practice what we preach around the world, so to speak. We may be at an inflection in US foreign policy. Bold yet practical ideas like these are precisely what’s needed.”

What’s needed is often different from what Congress does, however. Omar knows she has a lot of work ahead of her.

To achieve the big bold change we want at home, she knows we must figure out how to get along with the rest of the world—so that war is not inevitable, US military bases do not circle the planet, and Pentagon budgets do not gobble up the dollars that are allotted for discretionary spending.

“We can fight to have our Green New Deal. We can certainly get Medicare for All. We can cancel out student debt. We can certainly pass our Housing for All bill. We can get a universal school meals program up and running,” she says. “But in order to do all of those things, we have to stop policing the world, right?”

Omar is not the first to wrestle with these issues.

In 1953, as a newly elected president, Dwight Eisenhower explored the question:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.