When It Comes to U.S. Militarism, Elizabeth Warren Is No Progressive

There’s one important issue on which Warren has not veered far from the Democratic establishment.

Sarah Lazare

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at the National Action Network's annual convention, April 5, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Mass­a­chu­setts Sen­a­tor and 2020 pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Eliz­a­beth War­ren has been wide­ly cel­e­brat­ed in lib­er­al and left-lean­ing press for churn­ing out pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy pro­pos­als on the domes­tic front, from child care to hous­ing. Arti­cles have hailed her as the intel­lec­tu­al pow­er­house of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty,” the per­son who has the plans” and the pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy anchor in the 2020 field.” One Guardian piece from late Feb­ru­ary asks, Why vote for Sanders when you can have Eliz­a­beth War­ren instead?”

The fire and passion with which she goes to bat for economic justice issues simply does not apply to the war machine.

Yet, none of these arti­cles take a close look at Warren’s track record on war and mil­i­tarism, despite the fact that the realm of for­eign pol­i­cy is where pres­i­dents have the most pow­er to act with­out Con­gress (thanks in part to Obama’s unfor­tu­nate expan­sion of pres­i­den­tial pow­ers to make war). It’s as though the Unit­ed States exist­ed in a vac­u­um, with only domes­tic mat­ters to attend to; in real­i­ty, we are the biggest mil­i­tary empire in human his­to­ry, with 800 mil­i­tary bases around the world and U.S. com­man­dos deployed to 75% of countries.

Once Warren’s for­eign pol­i­cy record is scru­ti­nized, her sta­tus as a pro­gres­sive cham­pi­on starts to with­er. While War­ren is not on the far right of Demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics on war and peace, she also is not a pro­gres­sive — nor a leader — and has failed to use her pow­er­ful posi­tion on the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo. While she’s vot­ed for mil­i­tary de-esca­la­tion on some issues, includ­ing end­ing the Yemen War, she’s gone along with some of the most bel­liger­ent acts that have occurred under her watch, cheer­lead­ing Israel’s dev­as­tat­ing 2014 war on Gaza and vocal­iz­ing her sup­port for sanc­tions against Venezuela. Even judged accord­ing to the spec­trum of today’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, which is skewed so far to the right on war and mil­i­tarism it does not take much to dis­tin­guish one­self, War­ren gets an unsat­is­fac­to­ry grade: not the last in her class, but far from first.

Venezuela

We are on the eve of a pos­si­ble U.S. inva­sion of Venezuela, with the U.S. halt­ing all car­go and pas­sen­ger flights to the coun­try, and U.S.-backed oppo­si­tion fig­ure Juan Guaidó call­ing on the U.S. mil­i­tary for direct coor­di­na­tion. Amid this cli­mate, War­ren has drift­ed right­ward even from a few months ago, fail­ing to force­ful­ly chal­lenge bipar­ti­san sup­port—includ­ing from 2020 hope­ful Joe Biden — for the attempt­ed coup,.

In Jan­u­ary, War­ren told the Huff­in­g­ton Post she oppos­es sanc­tions and inter­ven­tion, while crit­i­ciz­ing the gov­ern­ment of Nicolás Maduro. The Venezue­lan peo­ple deserve free and fair elec­tions, an econ­o­my that works, and the abil­i­ty to live with­out fear of vio­lence from their own gov­ern­ment,” she said. Instead of reck­less threats of mil­i­tary action or sanc­tions that hurt those in need, we should be tak­ing real steps to sup­port the Venezue­lan people.”

But by the time she spoke on the pod­cast Pod Save Amer­i­ca on Feb­ru­ary 21, she had changed her tune on sanc­tions. I sup­port eco­nom­ic sanc­tions but now we’re gonna start, we’ve got to turn the dial some here we have to offer human­i­tar­i­an help at the same time.”

Accord­ing to a study by econ­o­mists Mark Weis­brot and Jef­frey Sachs for the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research, sanc­tions are esti­mat­ed to have killed 40,000 peo­ple from 2017 to 2018. These sanc­tions, they write, would fit the def­i­n­i­tion of col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment of the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion as described in both the Gene­va and Hague inter­na­tion­al conventions.”

Per­haps more impor­tant­ly, War­ren has so far declined to co-spon­sor S.J.Res.11, known as the Pro­hibit­ing Unau­tho­rized Mil­i­tary Action in Venezuela Res­o­lu­tion of 2019.” (Update: Fol­low­ing pub­li­ca­tion of this arti­cle, War­ren signed on as a cospon­sor of S.J.Res.11.) This bill would ban depart­ment or agency fund­ing from being used to intro­duce armed forces into hos­til­i­ties with Venezuela, except pur­suant to a spe­cif­ic statu­to­ry autho­riza­tion by Con­gress enact­ed after this joint res­o­lu­tion.” In con­trast to War­ren, fel­low pres­i­den­tial con­tender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) is cospon­sor­ing the res­o­lu­tion. And like War­ren, Sens. Cory Book­er (D‑N.J.), Kirsten Gilli­brand (D‑N.Y.) and Kamala Har­ris (D‑Calif.) are not cosponsoring.

North Korea

Polling shows that the 51 mil­lion res­i­dents of South Korea over­whelm­ing­ly want the 68-year Kore­an War — to which the Unit­ed States is still offi­cial­ly par­ty — to come to an end. Yet, War­ren has giv­en numer­ous hawk­ish pub­lic quotes slam­ming Trump for those instances where he has sup­port­ed the peace process. She is part of a larg­er trend in which Democ­rats have attacked Trump from the right on this issue, infu­ri­at­ing Kore­an peace activists.

In a June 2018 state­ment about the Unit­ed States-North Korea sum­mit, War­ren said, Yes­ter­day’s pho­to op does­n’t change the fact that a nuclear-armed North Korea is a threat to the secu­ri­ty of the Unit­ed States, our allies, and the world. Gen­er­a­tions of North Kore­an lead­ers have made and bro­ken promis­es before — this Admin­is­tra­tion’s suc­cess will be judged on whether it can elim­i­nate Kim’s nuclear weapons and ver­i­fy they are gone.”

And in March 2018, War­ren indi­cat­ed that Trump — a pres­i­dent who has casu­al­ly threat­ened to total­ly destroy North Korea,” should be more aggres­sive: I’m very wor­ried that Don­ald Trump will go into these nego­ti­a­tions and Kim Jong-un will sim­ply take advan­tage of him.”

Com­ments like these were a blow to Kore­an peace move­ments, which have long argued that, to make the world safer, it is nec­es­sary to embrace peace talks to end the Kore­an war. Chris­tine Ahn, a South Korea-born, Hawai‘i‑based peace activist has been orga­niz­ing to end the Kore­an war under the admin­is­tra­tions of Trump, Barack Oba­ma and George W. Bush, told In These Times in June 2018 that lib­er­al fear-mon­ger­ing about the North was incred­i­bly unhelp­ful. It is very dan­ger­ous to pres­sure Trump to be hard­line,” says Ahn. We have to put all of our efforts into ensur­ing this goes well and is not undermined.”

This is about end­ing a sev­en-decade war with a coun­try the Unit­ed States has been at war with. The Unit­ed States has been an obsta­cle to peace for Korea and was respon­si­ble for divid­ing the penin­su­la,” Ahn says.

In con­trast to War­ren, Sanders released a state­ment June 12 prais­ing the Sin­ga­pore sum­mit as a pos­i­tive step in de-esca­lat­ing ten­sions between our coun­tries, address­ing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and mov­ing toward a more peace­ful future.”

In July 2017, War­ren vot­ed in favor of a bill that bun­dled togeth­er sanc­tions against Rus­sia, Iran and North Korea, despite the risk that this bill could be an obsta­cle to the peace process and would cer­tain­ly hurt the most oppressed and exploit­ed peo­ple in all of these coun­tries (although she did not cospon­sor). Sanders was the only Con­gressper­son who cau­cus­es with the Democ­rats to issue a no” vote. How­ev­er, Sanders did release a state­ment clar­i­fy­ing that he sup­ports sanc­tions on Rus­sia and North Korea, just not Iran. All the oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors run­ning for pres­i­dent vot­ed the same way as Warren.

To be fair, War­ren did cospon­sor the No Uncon­sti­tu­tion­al Strike Against North Korea Act of 2017,” along with Sanders; Beto O’Rourke spon­sored the leg­is­la­tion in the House. The Sen­ate bill pro­hibits the Unit­ed States from launch­ing a mil­i­tary strike against North Korea with­out a con­gres­sion­al dec­la­ra­tion of war. (The bill is still in the Com­mit­tee on For­eign Relations.)

Israel-Pales­tine

In the midst of Israel’s bru­tal 2014 Oper­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge” war on Gaza, that killed more than 2,100 Pales­tini­ans and hor­ri­fied the world with the slaugh­ter of four Pales­tin­ian chil­dren play­ing on the beach, War­ren repeat­ed Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu’s talk­ing points to defend Israel’s bomb­ing of schools. When Hamas puts its rock­et launch­ers next to hos­pi­tals, next to schools, they’re using their civil­ian pop­u­la­tion to pro­tect their mil­i­tary assets,” she said at a town hall meet­ing on Aug. 20, 2014. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself.”

She went on to defend $225 mil­lion in emer­gency funds grant­ed by the U.S. for Israel’s Iron Dome” project. I think the vote was right, and I’ll tell you why I think the vote was right,” she said. Amer­i­ca has a very spe­cial rela­tion­ship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dan­ger­ous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren’t many lib­er­al democ­ra­cies and democ­ra­cies that are con­trolled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”

She has also been close to AIPAC, a pow­er­ful right-wing pro-Israel lob­by­ing out­fit. As Nathan Guttman point­ed out in his 2016 For­ward piece about how War­ren is a sur­pris­ing Israel hawk,” War­ren has attend­ed the annu­al din­ners host­ed by the AIPAC Boston chap­ter and counts among her sup­port­ers some main­stream pro-Israel back­ers, includ­ing Steve Gross­man, a for­mer Mass­a­chu­setts trea­sur­er who was also pres­i­dent of AIPAC.”

In 2016, in advance of a UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing Israeli set­tle­ments, War­ren signed an AIPAC-spon­sored let­ter urg­ing Oba­ma to veto one-sided” res­o­lu­tions. Gilli­brand and Book­er also signed that let­ter, while Sanders did not.

There are some signs Warren’s posi­tions have grown slight­ly bet­ter in recent years, pos­si­bly a result of shift­ing polit­i­cal winds. In 2017, War­ren and Sanders were among just a few sen­a­tors who refused to cospon­sor a bill crit­i­ciz­ing a 2016 UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion that deemed Israeli set­tle­ments ille­gal. Gilli­brand, Har­ris and Book­er all cospon­sored that bill, which nev­er came to a final vote. That same year, War­ren joined nine oth­er sen­a­tors — includ­ing Sanders — in urg­ing Netanyahu not to demol­ish the Pales­tin­ian vil­lage of Susiya and the Bedouin com­mu­ni­ty of Khan al-Ahmar in Novem­ber 2017. Book­er and Har­ris did not sign the letter.

Also in 2017, how­ev­er, War­ren signed a let­ter with every oth­er sen­a­tor, includ­ing Sanders, Gilli­brand, Book­er and Har­ris, claim­ing the UN has a bias against the state of Israel. In Feb­ru­ary 2019, War­ren opposed a bill that would have crim­i­nal­ized the Pales­tin­ian-led move­ment for Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions against Israel, and would have pro­vid­ed addi­tion­al fund­ing to Israel. Book­er, Har­ris and Sanders also vot­ed against.

Yemen

Yemen is per­haps the one for­eign pol­i­cy issue where Warren’s vot­ing record has been pos­i­tive. War­ren cospon­sored S.J.Res.7, a joint res­o­lu­tion to direct the removal of Unit­ed States Armed Forces from hos­til­i­ties in the Repub­lic of Yemen that have not been autho­rized by Con­gress.” This 2019 bill, which passed the Sen­ate but was vetoed by Trump, was intro­duced by Sanders and also attract­ed the cospon­sor­ship of Gilli­brand, Har­ris and Booker.

War­ren also vot­ed repeat­ed­ly to sup­port efforts to block the sale of arms that would be used by Sau­di Ara­bia in the war. This includ­ed her vote against tabling S.J.Res.39, a joint res­o­lu­tion dis­ap­prov­ing of the sale of key mil­i­tary arms and equip­ment to Sau­di Ara­bia. She did so in Sep­tem­ber 2016, in a chal­lenge to Obama’s war, when only 27 vot­ed against tabling. Sanders, Gilli­brand and Book­er were among those who also vot­ed the right way on that resolution.

While advo­cates for end­ing the war appre­ci­ate Warren’s votes, they don’t cred­it her with spear­head­ing the effort. She is not a leader,” Jehan Hakim, who chairs the Yemeni Alliance Com­mit­tee, tells In These Times. Chris Mur­phy, Sanders, Ro Khan­na and Mark Pocan — those were the peo­ple leading.”

Robert Naiman, pol­i­cy direc­tor for Just For­eign Pol­i­cy, agrees. War­ren was an ear­ly sup­port­er of Bernie’s efforts to end uncon­sti­tu­tion­al U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Sau­di war in Yemen — much ear­li­er than Kamala Har­ris or Joe Biden, who were late to join what is now the con­sen­sus among Democ­rats,” he says. But if it had­n’t been for Bernie’s lead­er­ship, togeth­er with Chris Mur­phy and Mike Lee, the issue of uncon­sti­tu­tion­al U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war, which enabled us to force Con­gress to vote against the war by invok­ing the War Pow­ers Res­o­lu­tion, might nev­er have been raised on the Sen­ate and House floor.”

Biden, who vot­ed to autho­rize the inva­sion of Iraq in 2002, nev­er pub­licly broke from Oba­ma on the Yemen War. Yet in May, after he declared his pres­i­den­tial can­di­da­cy, he called for the U.S. to with­draw its support.

Iran

At the begin­ning, War­ren aligned her­self with Oba­ma on the nuclear deal with Iran, and was one of the ear­li­er Democ­rats to declare her sup­port. On Aug. 3, 2015 — some days before Bernie Sanders — War­ren offered her sup­port in an offi­cial state­ment.

Yet, in July 2017, War­ren vot­ed in favor of afore­men­tioned bill that grouped togeth­er sanc­tions against Rus­sia, Iran and North Korea (which Sanders vot­ed against). She did this despite warn­ings from Obama’s for­mer Sec­re­tary of State, John Ker­ry, that the new sanc­tions threat­en to under­mine the Iran deal. At a fundrais­er in San Fran­cis­co in June 2017, Ker­ry said, 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.”

As recent­ly as Decem­ber 2018, War­ren called for the Unit­ed States to re-enter the nuclear deal, push­ing back against the Trump administration’s increas­ing­ly con­fronta­tion­al stance. And on May 14, War­ren signed up as a cospon­sor of S.1039, Pre­ven­tion of Uncon­sti­tu­tion­al War with Iran Act of 2019 (though it took War­ren more than a month to sign on, while Sanders was a cospon­sor from the day the bill was intro­duced). Har­ris and Book­er are not cospon­sors. This bill pro­hibits funds from being used for kinet­ic mil­i­tary oper­a­tions against Iran unless Con­gress autho­rizes such an action, with var­i­ous excep­tions such as in response to an immi­nent threat.”

Mil­i­tary-Indus­tri­al Complex

Through­out her career, War­ren has sup­port­ed defense con­tracts and mil­i­tary bases for her home state. She wrote in 2013 edi­to­r­i­al that, The work that goes on at bases and by defense con­trac­tors through­out the com­mon­wealth is a great exam­ple of how invest­ments in research and devel­op­ment can help ensure our nation’s mil­i­tary is ready and able to meet cur­rent and emerg­ing needs while also sup­port­ing our state’s econ­o­my.” And a 2015 Politi­co arti­cle finds, War­ren has fought to stop the Army from shift­ing funds away from a Mass­a­chu­setts-built com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work to pay for unan­tic­i­pat­ed costs asso­ci­at­ed with the war in Afghanistan. She’s lob­bied for prob­lem-plagued Gen­er­al Dynam­ics-made tac­ti­cal radios. And she’s pledged to pro­tect West­over Air Reserve Base from the bud­get ax — all while say­ing she sup­ports tar­get­ed” cuts else­where.” (To be fair, Sanders has sup­port­ed the F‑35 fight­er jet because of his belief it will help Vermont’s economy.)

This sup­port for mil­i­tary fund­ing to Mass­a­chu­setts has, at times, extend­ed to the rest of the coun­try. War­ren backed the 2018 defense autho­riza­tion bill while Sanders did not, while War­ren and Sanders vot­ed against the bloat­ed war bud­get for 2019.

Per­haps most telling about what a future War­ren admin­is­tra­tion would look like is the advis­ers War­ren has sur­round­ed her­self with. In Feb­ru­ary 2017, she announced the hir­ing of Sasha Bak­er to be her nation­al secu­ri­ty advi­sor. Until 2017, Bak­er was the deputy chief of staff to the Sec­re­tary of Defense Ash­ton Carter. Carter over­saw the U.S. war on ISIS, as well as U.S. mil­i­tary buildup in the Asia-Pacif­ic to hedge against Chi­na. Anoth­er key advis­er is Ganesh Sitara­man, a pro­fes­sor at Van­der­bilt and a senior fel­low at the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, a think tank aligned with the lead­er­ship of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that has been wide­ly crit­i­cized for its hawk­ish poli­cies, includ­ing calls for con­fronta­tion with Iran.

There are numer­ous oth­er warn­ing signs — and unan­swered ques­tions. In 2013, War­ren sup­port­ed John Brennan’s CIA nom­i­na­tion. He was a major advo­cate of the U.S. tar­get­ed-killing pro­gram. (Bernie did not. Gilli­brand did.)

War­ren did vote against leg­is­la­tion that would autho­rize Pres­i­dent Oba­ma to arm and train Syr­i­an rebels in Sep­tem­ber 2014. I do not want Amer­i­ca to be dragged into anoth­er ground war in the Mid­dle East, and it is time for those nations in the region that are most imme­di­ate­ly affect­ed by the rise of ISIS to step up and play a lead­ing role in this fight.” Beyond that, War­ren has revealed lit­tle about her posi­tions on Syria.

To her cred­it, a few weeks after she declared her can­di­da­cy for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent, War­ren intro­duced the no first-use” of nuclear weapons bill, along with House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair Adam Smith. The leg­is­la­tion con­sists of a sin­gle sen­tence: It is the pol­i­cy of the Unit­ed States to not use nuclear weapons first.”

Cam­paign Rhetoric

Like her record, Warren’s cam­paign rhetoric is all over the map. Just after she announced her can­di­da­cy for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent, War­ren backed Trump’s calls to with­draw from Syr­ia and Afghanistan, an impor­tant step. But she hasn’t fol­lowed up that pub­lic posi­tion with any mean­ing­ful polit­i­cal steps, and she has since released mil­i­taris­tic statements.

On May 15, War­ren tweet­ed, Cli­mate change is … under­min­ing our mil­i­tary readi­ness,” sug­gest­ing that she still sees mil­i­tary pow­er as a U.S. pri­or­i­ty. That same day, War­ren released a plan for a more green mil­i­tary, premised on the claim that Our mil­i­tary can help lead the fight in com­bat­ing cli­mate change.” War­ren is call­ing to invest more mon­ey into mak­ing mil­i­tary bases zero-car­bon and cli­mate resilient, with no acknowl­edge­ment that we should be dis­man­tling these bases. The mil­i­tary goals she claims are para­mount are in fact dri­ving the crisis.

Almost simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, War­ren intro­duced a sep­a­rate plan to crack down on the out­sized role that defense con­trac­tors play at the Pen­ta­gon. And in an ear­li­er state­ment, War­ren called for an end to end­less wars,” as well as a recom­mit­ment to nuclear non­pro­lif­er­a­tion. But in that same paper, she takes a hard line against Chi­na and Rus­sia, fram­ing inter­na­tion­al rela­tions as a zero-sum competition.

Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, War­ren should be judged most heav­i­ly accord­ing to her over­all track record, not rhetoric and promis­es issued in the midst of cam­paign sea­son. Oba­ma, after all, taught us we can’t rely on cam­paign promis­es, and that we shouldn’t just see what we want to see in a can­di­date. We have to take a hard look at what the evi­dence tells us that can­di­date will — and will not — do. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Warren’s track record tells us she will not lead the charge to demil­i­ta­rize the Unit­ed States, nor veer very far from the tra­di­tion­al cen­ters of pow­er in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. The fire and pas­sion with which she goes to bat for eco­nom­ic jus­tice issues sim­ply does not apply to the war machine. War­ren embraces pro­gres­sivism at home but not abroad, fol­low­ing in a long line of lib­er­al chau­vin­ists who ele­vate their com­pa­tri­ots over the rest of the world.

Daniel Fer­nan­dez con­tributed research to this article.

Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose any can­di­date for pub­lic office.

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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