By Ben Norton
Ro Khanna is the face of a new generation of progressive members of Congress who are bucking the hawkish bipartisan foreign-policy consensus in the United States.
A left-wing Democrat representing California, Khanna made headlines in 2017 for founding the No PAC Caucus to support members of Congress who refuse to take money from political action committees or lobbyists. A supporter of Medicare for All and more progressive economic policies, Rep. Khanna is also willing to challenge his colleagues on issues of war and peace.
In his first year in Congress, Khanna has established himself as a foreign-policy maverick. He sits on the House Armed Services Committee, and, since winning the general election in November 2016, has been one of the most outspoken lawmakers challenging US interventionism abroad.
The Real News conducted a lengthy discussion by phone with Rep. Ro Khanna, covering a range of topics relating to US foreign policy and militarism.
Khanna condemned what he called “the neoliberal-neoconservative bent of American foreign policy in this century,” and criticized the “Kissingerian worldview” that dominates US politics.
“I think our first principle in the Middle East should be, ‘Let’s do no harm,’” Khanna explained. “After the overthrow of Mosaddegh, after the arming of Saddam Hussein, after the calling for regime change in Syria, after the toppling of Qadhafi in Libya — which has done nothing but signal to every country that they need nuclear weapons to ward off American intervention — we should have some humility.”
Rep. Khanna has been particularly vocal about the US role in the Saudi war on Yemen. Since March 2015, the United States has assisted Saudi Arabia in a brutal bombing campaign and blockade of the monarchy’s southern neighbor, which has unleashed the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world and utterly devastated the poorest country in the region.
The US has sold many billions of dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia, and these weapons have been used to commit apparent war crimes against Yemeni civilians. The US military has also carried out thousands of in-air refueling sorties for Saudi warplanes and given critical intelligence and assistance to the Saudi military, as it ruthlessly targets civilian areas with an endless barrage of airstrikes.
Without US support, it is very likely that Saudi Arabia would be unable to wage the war in the first place.
Khanna stressed that not only has the US-backed Saudi war on Yemen led to the deaths of many thousands of civilians and created the largest cholera epidemic in recorded history; it has also strengthened al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.
In October, Khanna introduced a bipartisan bill in the House that sought to halt US participation in the war in Yemen. A month later, a compromise version of the legislation passed in a landslide, 366-30.
The following is a transcript of Ro Khanna’s interview with The Real News. It has been lightly edited for clarity. At some parts, The Real News has also added links for further information on the relevant topic.
Interview with Rep. Ro Khanna
Ben Norton: Thanks for the interview. I do want to talk about the legislation you introduced in October and the vote in the House in November, which was of course very significant. But maybe can we begin at the beginning, if you will, and can you talk about how you got interested in this issue in the first place?
Ro Khanna: I have a sense that our foreign policy needs to be based on greater restraint and a first principle of doing no harm. I’ve been concerned about the neoliberal-neoconservative bent of American foreign policy in this century. And I have been quite outspoken in suggesting that that is not in our national interest and it also is not supportive of human rights.
Originally, my interest in Yemen came because I thought the United States was making the same mistake there, in getting involved in a civil war, a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran. I was cognizant, as so many people are, of the mistake we made in arming Saddam Hussein to take on Iran, and it seemed we were repeating history, that we hadn’t learned our lesson of intervention in the Middle East.
As I got more engaged, because of that initial interest in being cautious about intervention, and I started meeting with peace groups, I became educated about the sheer scale of the human-rights crisis. And I felt that the situation there is probably reminiscent of how policymakers in the ’90s felt about Rwanda — a place, in the case of Yemen, with almost a million people facing possible cholera, 5 million to more facing the possibility of famine.
I just thought anyone who has any sense of power, any sense of responsibility, has a moral obligation to try to do something, given the scale of the humanitarian crisis, or we would all be judged in part responsible for apathy, indifference, while massive human rights are being abused and people are really suffering.
I remember Bill Clinton saying his biggest regret was not doing anything about Rwanda, and I felt, even though I’m a freshman member of Congress, I should try to do my small part to see what we could do about this crisis.
So there were two parts to it. One, from a strategic perspective, I felt the United States should not be engaged in refueling assistance to the Saudis. We shouldn’t be aiding the Saudis in a proxy war with Iran. We shouldn’t be assisting them with our targeting and creating a new generation of hate among young Yemenis.
Then from a humanitarian perspective, we should be pushing at least for food and medicine to go into Yemen. We should make sure that the ports and the airports are open not just to the humanitarian assistance but the commercial assistance, because the humanitarian assistance has been so limited; what we really need is to allow commercial assistance there, which can save lives.
The resolution was a compromise resolution, and some of the peace groups wanted more, as did I. But I thought, at the very least, that if we got some statement that Congress opposed it, recognizing the humanitarian crisis and recognizing that the assistance to the Saudis was unauthorized under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, that maybe we would at least make progress on the humanitarian issue.
I was very pleased when the secretary-general of the UN called and said that he was aware of the Congress’ resolution and that it had caught the eye of leaders at the UN. And of course when President Trump himself said that Congress has acted and the Saudis need to provide humanitarian assistance. So at the very least I think this resolution has caught the attention of the American president, and the secretary-general of the UN, and hopefully given us some leverage with the Saudis to push for greater humanitarian assistance.
Ben Norton: As for your legislation, what’s interesting is I have in the past reported on previous attempts to introduce legislation to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and none of those bills passed. I have interviewed Ted Lieu and some others who co-sponsored that legislation. To my knowledge, I think the bill you co-sponsored is the only Yemen-related legislation, related to the Saudi war, that has actually been passed.
Like you said, this is just the beginning; it’s a first step. But do you think that now that this largely symbolic but important resolution has been passed, can it be used to push for the blocking of future arms sales and other kinds of legislation?
Ro Khanna: I think it can. We worked very, very hard on that resolution, to get certain key things in. One was an acknowledgement of the US refueling and the US targeting assistance to the Saudis. We had the military come in and brief the congressional leadership. Before, there was no acknowledgement by the United States Congress that we were actually engaged in that activity. And there were people in the press who were denying our involvement.
The fact that we have an explicit acknowledgment is a major, major step forward, because at least we now have the facts on the ground established.
The second major thing we got through in that resolution was an explicit acknowledgment that our refueling and our targeting is not authorized by Congress. What is authorized is limited counterterrorism operations in Yemen against al-Qaeda. But as you know, al-Qaeda in some ways is aligned with the Saudi forces against the Houthis, and the alliances there keep changing.
There is no authorization for the United States that assists the Saudis in their war against the Houthis, or certainly in their war against Iran. And that was so important to establish, it being unauthorized, because that made it very, very clear that we shouldn’t be engaged in a mission creep that leads to a conflict with Iran. And it gives, again, the basis of challenging policy in the Yemen civil war.
Of course what we wanted was the War Powers Resolution, which would prohibit the government from engaging in refueling or targeting assistance, and we didn’t get that. We didn’t get the binding quality of the force of law. So the next step will be vigilance.
I’m going to, from the Armed Services Committee, ask Defense Secretary Mattis, I’m going to say, “Look, the Congress has passed a resolution saying that this is unauthorized. Are you still engaged in this? If so, why? And do you not care about the consensus of Congress saying that it is unauthorized? Obviously it’s not binding, but shouldn’t you be concerned about what Congress believes, as a representative of the American people?”
I think we need to continue to ask these questions of the military, both from Congress and the press.
Second, we’re working on humanitarian legislation to try to make more binding calls for opening the ports and opening the airports. I think that is something that may have a chance to pass. Even Nikki Haley, who I have had disagreements with on other issues, has called for greater humanitarian access into Yemen. So that is something where we may find possibilities for legislation.
Finally, I think there is a growing sense in Congress of reevaluating our relationship with the Saudis, calling into question arms sales, calling into question the value of providing the Saudis with so many weapons, given their foreign policy. That’s a tougher lift, but there is a growing skepticism of that alliance in the United States Congress, and I’m going to continue to work to raise the issue about whether that is in the United States’ strategic interest.
Ben Norton: I know you only recently entered Congress, but I’m curious what you think about why congresspeople would actually vote against this kind of legislation. Because it seems to me that, like you said, it’s pretty commonsensical, given the incredible gravity of the humanitarian situation in Yemen, and given the fact that I don’t think challenging Saudi Arabia and criticizing it is necessarily a politically contentious issue. Perhaps I’m wrong.
But with your view from the inside, do you think that this is a matter of congresspeople getting money from the arms industry, so they are incentivized to vote against legislation that would block arm sales to Saudi Arabia? Or is it because of money from Saudi-funded groups? We know there is significant Saudi lobbying in Washington. Or is it ideological? Overall, why do you think there is opposition to what should be common-sense legislation?
Ro Khanna: Look, I think there’s definitely a role of Saudi lobbyists; I’m sure there’s a role of defense money in politics. But it’s much deeper than that. Because by and large people come to Congress and they want to exercise some judgment. And I think it would be too simplistic to say it’s just the Saudi lobbyists or just the defense industry. Though personally I don’t take PAC and lobbyist money, and I think that the defense industry shouldn’t be allowed, through corporations, to be giving money. And I’m really concerned about the influence of lobbyists in general.
But I think that the thinking of some of the members stems from a balance-of-power, sort of Kissingerian, worldview. Kissinger’s worldview is that you want to prevent powers from becoming hegemons in regions.
If you have that view, and if you have the view of Iran being a potential hegemon in the Middle East, then you want to ally with counterweights that can prevent that from happening. And so people say, “Well, the force in the Arab world that can prevent Iran from emerging as a power and put a check on Iranian ambition is Saudi Arabia, and that’s why the United States should ally with the Saudis from a perspective of realpolitik.”
I reject that thinking. I think that thinking has gotten the United States into trouble. It’s gotten us into trouble with the Iran-Iraq War, where we built up Saddam Hussein. It’s gotten us into trouble in Libya; I don’t think that there was any need to have an intervention against Qadhafi. It’s gotten us into trouble in calling for regime change in Syria.
My sense is that we should have a policy that is much more based on respecting the rights of people around the world, and being very cautious of intervening and aligning in areas where our national interest isn’t directly at stake.
So I think it’s rethinking a balance-of-power politics framework that has dominated our approach to the Middle East and candidly dominated our foreign-policy thinking probably since the Cold War, and returning more to the original principles of George Washington or John Quincy Adams, who cautioned against excessive interventionism abroad.
Ben Norton: The war in Yemen has largely been bipartisan. Obama oversaw the war in the first nearly two years, when he was in office, and of course Trump has expanded US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. What you’re saying, this criticism of the traditional bipartisan foreign-policy orthodoxy, we have seen some elements within the Democratic Party who have increasingly embraced this. So you have colleagues, you have lawmakers like Tulsi Gabbard, Ted Lieu, Bernie Sanders when he was running for president — I mean he’s not necessarily a Democrat, but he caucuses with the Democrats.
We do see some voices within the Congress who have been expressing the same criticisms of this bipartisan foreign policy — earlier you used the term “neoconservative/neoliberal”; there’s this kind of agreement. Do you have a sense that there is a kind of a new wave of progressive politicians who are going to challenge that foreign-policy orthodoxy that traditionally the Democrats and Republicans have, not entirely, but often agreed on?
Ro Khanna: I do, but I don’t think it’s just progressives. I think there are actually Republicans as well, people like Walter Jones, and Thomas Massie, and Rand Paul, people who are questioning the excessive interventionism of the recent American past, and saying, “How has this advanced America’s national interest?”
People who believe in our founding principles, where George Washington warned against interventionism and getting entangled abroad with alliances, and where John Quincy Adams said, “Look we can’t often know who the good guys are when we go overseas, and in the quest of defending freedom we may end up being perceived as a dictatorial force.” That was Quincy Adams’ reasoning back in the early 1800s. I think there are actually Republicans as well who share that perspective.
So I think that there is a sense in a war-weary nation, in a nation that is concerned that interventionism has not made us safer and has hurt our standing among other countries, that maybe we ought to be more restrained with hard power and more expansionist with soft power. What people love about America is our music, and our movies, and our technology gadgets, and our values, and those are the things that we ought to be exporting, and we ought to be more restrained with hard power.
I think that that’s actually a sense that many progressives, new progressive voices, believe in. But it’s also a sense that certain conservative voices believe in, who have been skeptical of the sort of neocon interventionism.
Ben Norton: You named a few of the Republicans. Aside from Tulsi Gabbard, who else do you think in the Democratic Party represents this anti-interventionist sentiment?
Ro Khanna: Well I think the intellectual leader for it is Katrina vanden Heuvel, at The Nation. She has written the most cogent pieces about it, out of anyone. She’s not in Congress, but she is to progressive foreign policy what Robert Reich, or Paul Krugman, or Stephanie Kelton are to progressive economic policy. I think she is, to the extent that Bill Kristol was sort of the voice of neoconservative foreign policy, I think Katrina is the voice for what a progressive foreign policy would look like. And my hope is that she can really help in drafting the Democratic Party platform.
In terms of people who are actually in Congress, obviously Senator Sanders gave a very consequential speech in Missouri, talking about a reorientation of American foreign policy away from Saudi Arabia and more values based. Ted Lieu has been thoughtful on these issues. And in the Senate you have Chris Murphy, who has articulated a more progressive approach to foreign policy.
Ben Norton: I have a few more questions. And this is related to your critique of realpolitik and the kind of Kissingerian approach. When you spoke in November on the House floor, before the vote on the legislation you introduced, you mentioned that — and this is a pretty well-documented point, The Wall Street Journal has reported on it — that there is proven collusion between the US-backed Saudi and Emirati forces in Yemen and also al-Qaeda. We know this; we have video footage showing they fought side by side against the Houthis.
The point you made is that the 9/11-era legislation originally that allowed the US to intervene in the Middle East, and Yemen specifically, was to fight against al-Qaeda. And in fact, now in Yemen the US is harming that effort. So if our actual goal is to defeat al-Qaeda, why are we continuing to support this war? Can you talk more about this contradiction, and how even this realpolitik approach, this kind of hard-power approach, may seem to be more effective but in many ways it can actually backfire?
Ro Khanna: I think that’s exactly right. We are so blinded, in the Beltway in certain cases, on containing Iran that we are oblivious to the byproducts of that and the threats that the United States faces. The real threat to the United States has been al-Qaeda. It has been actual terrorist groups.
In the War Powers Resolution I drafted, I insisted that we not restrict the American military’s ability to take counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda in Yemen. In fact I had to convince my progressive colleagues on that legislation. And I did; we got Barbara Lee ultimately and a lot of the progressives on board and the peace groups on board. And we were fine saying to the military, if you want to go after al-Qaeda, if you want to go after actual terrorists that threaten the United States, that are in any way responsible for 9/11 or actions like 9/11, we want you to do that. We are grateful for our men and women who are fighting terrorism and we’re not Pollyannish about the threats that exist against the United States.
But what we don’t want to do is subjugate going after the actual threats to the United States for foreign-policy goals of containing Iran.
What the foreign policy establishment has done is said we are more concerned about the threat of Iran’s expansion than we are actually about the terrorists who struck on 9/11, the terrorists who could potentially continue to threaten the United States.
I know that’s hard to believe, but that’s really because it’s the singular thinking about the containing of Iran and building alliances with anyone who is opposed to Iran. And that’s just not in our national interest.
What we ought to do is take a very sober look at the groups that threaten us, the terrorists that threaten us, make sure that we are arming our military and supporting our troops to fight those terrorists, but that we are in no way stretching our military thin to engage in regional balance-of-power politics.
And this seems to be the mistake the United States has continued to make in the Middle East, that has drained our treasury, that has cost us so many soldiers’ lives, and that has made us less safe.
Ben Norton: Related to that, earlier you mentioned the wars in Libya and Syria. Of course in the war in Syria, we saw that the US supported rebels that later defected to or were even allied with extremists like al-Qaeda and ISIS. And then we have seen the disastrous aftermath of the war in Libya. What do you think about those as well?
Ro Khanna: Again, I think it was misguided policy. Look, I think Assad is a monster. Assad is a brutal dictator. His father was even more brutal. There was the Hama Massacre. So I don’t in any way have an ounce of anything but denunciation for Assad. He’s really an evil leader.
But the question is, what is the United States’ role in promoting our national security and promoting human rights? And what we did, in 2011, when we called for regime change, is further destabilized Syria, and we made Syria a magnet for every group from al-Qaeda to ISIS terrorists to come in. They thought, okay the United States will be involved in some form of regime change.
My view is that’s not a smart policy. I instead have the John Quincy Adams view of foreign policy, which is, we should speak out very clearly against Assad, condemn Assad, say this is a brutal man who is committing brutal, heinous human rights violations; but we can’t be going and intervening in places that we don’t know, without any sense of what the consequences will be or the long-term game plan will be, and further destabilize those areas where you have just a perpetuation of violence.
What we needed to do is deal with Turkey, Russia, Syria, trying to bring some regional ceasefires in that area, a cessation of violence, and then hope that the Syrians figure out what a more just regime would look like.
But it should not be with US involvement, which subjects us to greater criticism because we often go in without a full appreciation and understanding of all the players and a long-term game plan.
That’s why I think our first principle in the Middle East should be, “Let’s do no harm.” After the overthrow of Mosaddegh, after the arming of Saddam Hussein, after the calling for regime change in Syria, after the toppling of Qadhafi in Libya — which has done nothing but signal to every country that they need nuclear weapons to ward off American intervention — we should have some humility and some, frankly, respect for our military and say let’s not keep putting our men and women in harm’s way for missions that are unwinnable. The problem hasn’t been with our military; the problem has been with the elected leaders commanding the military.
Ben Norton: I’ll conclude here. Do you have any other hopes for introducing legislation on the war in Yemen? Have you talked with other people in Congress? What are the next steps that you and others hope to take to try to stop US support for the war, now that Congress has recognized that it’s not authorized.
Ro Khanna: I’m very hopeful that Senator Sanders and some of the other senators may take up a War Powers Resolution in the Senate. They obviously have a much larger microphone than I do. And I’m hopeful that if the Senate takes up the War Powers Resolution that we introduced in the House, that that may gain momentum and that we may be able to re-explore that in the House.
I’m also hopeful in the House that we may be able to, in this year’s appropriations budget, through defense appropriations, perhaps restrict the funding for refueling or targeting assistance to the Saudis.
I will continue to introduce resolutions on access to humanitarian assistance and commercial assistance in Yemen, to save whatever lives we can.
And I will work with even the Republican chair, Ed Royce, who was very helpful in the resolution we passed, to say, “Look, we may disagree on the broader philosophical issues of foreign policy. You may be more Kissingerian; I may be more John Quincy Adams, restraint driven. But we both can agree that what’s happening in Yemen is unconscionable, and that we ought to put as much pressure on the Saudis to stop the barbaric bombing of civilians in Yemen and to allow humanitarian assistance in.”