A Close Look at Kamala Harris’ Hawkish Foreign Policy

Harris has little to say on the subject. But her record speaks volumes.

Sarah Lazare September 10, 2019

WASHINGTON, D C , UNITED STATES - 2017/03/28: Senator Kamala Harris addressing the 2017 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Sen­a­tor Kamala Har­ris (D‑Calif.) has not made war and mil­i­tarism a cen­ter­piece of her pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. She’s giv­en no major for­eign pol­i­cy” speech, and she did not respond to a series of sim­ple yes-or-no ques­tions about glob­al pol­i­tics from FiveThir­tyEight (Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg were the only oth­er major Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates to decline). On her cam­paign web­site, Har­ris’ only state­ment on for­eign pol­i­cy” is just over 500 words — and it’s more a screed against Trump (he’s men­tioned sev­en times) than a cogent vision. In the realm of inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics, she’s prob­a­bly best known for say­ing in Jan­u­ary that we can­not con­duct our for­eign pol­i­cy through tweets,” a state­ment that con­veys noth­ing, oth­er than oppo­si­tion to Trump.

Kamala Harris has repeatedly depicted the North Korean peace process as a nefarious example of Trump cozying up to a dictator—rather than a de-escalation Korean people desperately want.

But this cam­paign brand­ing doesn’t mean Har­ris has no for­eign pol­i­cy.” Just look­ing at war (with­out get­ting into oth­er crit­i­cal for­eign pol­i­cy issues, from cli­mate to trade agree­ments to covert oper­a­tions), Har­ris has dis­cern­able stances. A close look at her record shows that, to the extent she has tak­en posi­tions, they are defined by her close rela­tion­ship with the right-wing lob­by out­fit Amer­i­can Israel Pub­lic Affairs Com­mit­tee (AIPAC), bel­li­cose rhetoric toward North Korea and Rus­sia, and reluc­tance to cospon­sor key pieces of leg­is­la­tion aimed at pre­vent­ing war with Venezuela and North Korea. On issues of mil­i­tarism, she’s square­ly in line with — and some­times on the right of — a hawk­ish Demo­c­ra­t­ic establishment.

A friend of AIPAC 

It’s now less palat­able for Democ­rats to be pub­licly cozy with AIPAC, due to grow­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty with Pales­tini­ans among the base of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, and dis­com­fort with AIPAC ally Ben­jamin Netanyahu’s open align­ment with Trump. Yet, Har­ris has forged close ties with the orga­ni­za­tion, which advo­cat­ed for the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq and opposed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. In March 2017, she told the AIPAC Pol­i­cy Con­fer­ence, Let me be clear about what I believe. I stand with Israel because of our shared val­ues, which are so fun­da­men­tal to the found­ing of both our nations.” At the 2018 con­fer­ence, Har­ris gave an off-the-record speech, in which she boast­ed, As a child, I nev­er sold Girl Scout cook­ies, I went around with a JNFUSA box col­lect­ing funds to plant trees in Israel.” The JNFUSA, or Jew­ish Nation­al Fund, has direct­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in land theft and eth­nic cleans­ing cam­paigns tar­get­ing Pales­tini­ans and Bedouins.

In 2019, Har­ris announced that she’d skip AIPAC’s con­fer­ence (along with Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Eliz­a­beth War­ren, and four oth­er can­di­dates) but then, a few weeks lat­er, host­ed AIPAC lead­ers in her office to talk about the right of Israel to defend itself,” as she put it.

These posi­tions are not just the­o­ret­i­cal. As Har­ris bragged in her 2017 AIPAC talk, “[The] first res­o­lu­tion I co-spon­sored as a Unit­ed States sen­a­tor was to com­bat anti-Israel bias at the Unit­ed Nations and reaf­firm that the Unit­ed States seeks a just, secure and sus­tain­able two-state solu­tion.” She was refer­ring to S.Res.6, intro­duced by Mar­co Rubio (R‑Fla.) in Jan­u­ary 2017, which object­ed to a UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion adopt­ed in 2016 that declared Israeli set­tle­ments a vio­la­tion of inter­na­tion­al law. By con­trast, Sanders and War­ren did not cospon­sor the res­o­lu­tion. It nev­er came to a vote.

In Novem­ber 2017, Har­ris met with Netanyahu, and, accord­ing to the Israeli prime min­is­ter, dis­cussed the poten­tial for deep­en­ing coop­er­a­tion in water man­age­ment, agri­cul­ture, cyber secu­ri­ty and more.” She was not among 10 Democ­rats who, nine days lat­er, signed a let­ter urg­ing Netanyahu not to demol­ish the Pales­tin­ian vil­lage of Susiya and the Bedouin com­mu­ni­ty of Khan al-Ahmar.

To her cred­it, in Feb­ru­ary, Har­ris opposed a bill that would have crim­i­nal­ized the Pales­tin­ian-led move­ment for Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions of Israel (BDS). How­ev­er, she has his­tor­i­cal­ly opposed BDS and, like many Israel hawk Democ­rats, vot­ed against the bill only on free speech” grounds.

Goad­ing Trump: North Korea and Russia 

Polls show Kore­ans over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port the peace process and want an end of the 69-year-old Kore­an War, to which the U.S. is still offi­cial­ly par­ty. Accord­ing to a Gallup Korea poll con­duct­ed in June, two days after the Trump-Kim sum­mit, 66% of South Kore­ans sup­port­ed the sum­mit and only 11% saw it in a neg­a­tive light.

Yet, Democ­rats — like Repub­li­cans — have a his­to­ry of hos­til­i­ty towards peace process­es, typ­i­fied in Obama’s pol­i­cy of strate­gic patience,” in which he ratch­eted up sanc­tions and espi­onage against North Korea while steer­ing clear of mean­ing­ful peace talks. The for­eign pol­i­cy con­sen­sus in both par­ties has been to use the still-ongo­ing Kore­an war as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to main­tain a mas­sive mil­i­tary pres­ence in South Korea — includ­ing the largest over­seas U.S. mil­i­tary base, Camp Humphreys — despite long-stand­ing local oppo­si­tion to the base over pol­lu­tion and sex­u­al vio­lence, among oth­er com­plaints. Under Trump, Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment lead­ers have oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly opposed the peace process when­ev­er Trump has sup­port­ed it, show­ing lit­tle moral com­pass oth­er than oppo­si­tion to Trump — even as he has proven erratic.

Kamala Har­ris has fall­en in line, repeat­ed­ly depict­ing the North Kore­an peace process as a nefar­i­ous exam­ple of Trump cozy­ing up to a dic­ta­tor — rather than a de-esca­la­tion Kore­an peo­ple des­per­ate­ly want. In May, for exam­ple, amid climb­ing ten­sions between the U.S. and North Korea, and days after U.S. seizure of a North Kore­an ship, she said, We can­not put our arms and embrace this North Kore­an dic­ta­tor in the way this pres­i­dent has done.” And in June, dur­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate, she declared, You want to talk about North Korea, a real threat in terms of its nuclear arse­nal. But what does [Trump] do? He embraces Kim Jong-un, a dic­ta­tor, for the sake of a pho­to op.” The impli­ca­tion of this state­ment is that engag­ing Kim Jong-un in talks makes the world more dan­ger­ous, when — in fact — it’s the only path to for­mal­ly end­ing the Kore­an War and reuni­fy­ing fam­i­lies. Social move­ments in South Korea have long been call­ing for demil­i­ta­riza­tion, and they do not have the lux­u­ry of wait­ing for more desir­able nego­ti­at­ing par­ties. Unless Democ­rats want to sub­ject Kore­ans to many more years of esca­la­tion, iso­la­tion and fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion, they should sup­port peace now. As Simone Chun, a Kore­an activist and aca­d­e­m­ic, told The Nation in Feb­ru­ary, Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and peace between North and South Korea is a grave­ly his­toric mat­ter that should be for the Kore­an peo­ple to decide… It can­not be allowed to be reduced to a bar­gain­ing chip in the strug­gle for one-upman­ship between Repub­li­cans and Democrats.”

In addi­tion, goad­ing Trump on North Korea is a dan­ger­ous game. He has shown him­self will­ing to turn at a dime and threat­en North Korea with total destruc­tion,” as he did in Sep­tem­ber 2017 in a show­down over the nuclear arse­nal. Such threats are not the­o­ret­i­cal: Dur­ing the Kore­an War in 1950 to 1953, the U.S. killed about 10% of North Korea’s pop­u­la­tion, a fact that is often over­looked in U.S. his­to­ry books. In Feb­ru­ary 2018, Har­ris did sign a let­ter to Trump, along with Sanders and War­ren, say­ing he lacked the legal author­i­ty to pre­emp­tive­ly strike North Korea. But her pub­lic needling of Trump risks this very outcome.

Har­ris’ fear-mon­ger­ing over the peace process con­tributes to a polit­i­cal cli­mate in which sup­port for de-esca­la­tion in Korea is seen as apol­o­gy for dic­ta­tor­ship. Chris­tine Ahn, the founder and inter­na­tion­al coor­di­na­tor of Women Cross DMZ, which advo­cates an end to the Kore­an War, tells In These Times, Instead of per­pet­u­at­ing tired old tropes about North Korea that close the polit­i­cal space for diplo­ma­cy, can­di­dates should be attack­ing Trump from the left and out­lin­ing a bold vision for end­ing Amer­i­ca’s old­est war.”

Har­ris is not a cospon­sor of the S.2016 — No Uncon­sti­tu­tion­al Strike Against North Korea Act of 2017, while War­ren and Sanders are. Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, in July 2017, she vot­ed in favor of bipar­ti­san leg­is­la­tion to bun­dle togeth­er sanc­tions against North Korea, Rus­sia and Iran. War­ren also vot­ed in favor of this leg­is­la­tion; Sanders is the only per­son in the House and Sen­ate who cau­cus­es with the Democ­rats who vot­ed against it (how­ev­er, he said he sup­ports sanc­tions against North Korea and Rus­sia but vot­ed no because he oppos­es sanc­tions on Iran). Yet it is pre­cise­ly the U.S. government’s poli­cies of sanc­tions, mil­i­tary mus­cle flex­ing, and iso­la­tion that have wors­ened ten­sions and erod­ed the polit­i­cal space for de-escalation.

Har­ris uses sim­i­lar­ly bel­li­cose lan­guage towards Rus­sia, repeat­ed­ly refer­ring to Rus­sia as an adver­sary.” She has done so in a con­text in which Democ­rats have used their over­whelm­ing focus on Rus­sia in the era of Trump pri­mar­i­ly to pass a sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary buildup.

Har­ris vot­ed for and her­ald­ed the pas­sage of the $677 bil­lion Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act (NDAA) for 2018, which explic­it­ly tar­get­ed Rus­sia. The even larg­er $716 bil­lion NDAA for 2019 also invoked Rus­sia and Chi­na to jus­ti­fy increased mil­i­tary spend­ing, and includ­ed a nuclear buildup that can only be seen as an attempt to hedge against Rus­sia (the U.S. and Rus­sia account for more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons). Democ­rats used the specter of Russ­ian inter­fer­ence to argue in favor of its pas­sage. While Har­ris was among the hand­ful of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tors who vot­ed against the 2019 NDAA, her anti-Rus­sia rhetoric nonethe­less con­tributed to the cli­mate that allowed it to pass the Demo­c­ra­t­ic House.

Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, in July 2017, Har­ris vot­ed in favor of the afore­men­tioned sanc­tions against Rus­sia, Iran and North Korea. While she didn’t release a state­ment about this vote, Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers cit­ed the need to counter Putin as a key rea­son to vote yes.”

Over­seas wars: Afghanistan, Syr­ia and Yemen

Har­ris’ cam­paign web­site says, She’ll end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and pro­tract­ed mil­i­tary engage­ments in places like Syr­ia. But she’ll do so respon­si­bly – by con­sult­ing our Gen­er­als and Ambas­sadors, not via tweet.” When it comes to actu­al troop with­drawals, how­ev­er, she shows skit­tish­ness. In an inter­view with The New York Times pub­lished in June, she said, I believe we should bring back our troops from Afghanistan, but I also believe that we need to have a pres­ence there in terms of sup­port­ing what the lead­ers of Afghanistan want to do in terms of hav­ing peace in that region, and cer­tain­ly sup­press­ing any pos­si­bil­i­ty of ISIS or any oth­er ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion from gain­ing steam.”

As we saw dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, any­thing short of an unam­bigu­ous call to end the U.S. occu­pa­tion can mean pro­tract­ed war. Oba­ma repeat­ed­ly claimed through­out his tenure that he was bring­ing the war to a respon­si­ble end” — while he con­tin­ued U.S. inter­ven­tion and dom­i­nance, and secured a bilat­er­al secu­ri­ty agree­ment in 2014 that locked in anoth­er decade of inter­ven­tion. In July, the Unit­ed Nations report­ed that, in the first half of 2019, Afghan and U.S. forces were respon­si­ble for killing more civil­ians than the Taliban.

When Trump announced in Decem­ber 2018 that he would with­draw about half of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Syr­ia, Har­ris found fault with the deci­sion, declar­ing in Jan­u­ary, My con­cern is that when we make deci­sions about what we will do in terms of our mil­i­tary pres­ence, much less our diplo­mat­ic pri­or­i­ties, that we do that in a way that will involve con­sul­ta­tion with our mil­i­tary lead­ers, in a way that would involve some kind of con­sul­ta­tion, or at least out­reach to our allies around the globe.”

When Sen. Mitch McConnell (R‑Ky.) then issued a res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing Trump’s announce­ment, Har­ris did vote against it, along with pret­ty much every Demo­c­ra­t­ic run­ning for pres­i­dent (Trump has not fol­lowed through on full troop removals).

Har­ris, like many Democ­rats, was also slow to get on board with calls to end the U.S.-Saudi-UAE war on Yemen, which is now four and a half years old and has left the coun­try in the grips of the world’s worst human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis, accord­ing to the Unit­ed Nations. She cospon­sored a with­draw­al bill intro­duced by Sanders in 2018, but not until nine months after it was intro­duced, and only after a pub­lic out­cry over Sau­di Arabia’s killing and dis­mem­ber­ment of Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Jamal Khashog­gi. Har­ris deserves cred­it for cospon­sor­ing the 2019 ver­sion of the bill, S.J.Res.7, in Feb­ru­ary, just a few days after it was introduced.

How­ev­er, Har­ris told the Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions in August that Sau­di Ara­bia remains an impor­tant ally, sug­gest­ing she is not will­ing to fun­da­men­tal­ly break with the long-stand­ing — and glob­al­ly destruc­tive — spe­cial rela­tion­ship between the U.S. and Sau­di Ara­bia. The Unit­ed States and Sau­di Ara­bia still have mutu­al areas of inter­est, such as coun­tert­er­ror­ism, where the Saud­is have been strong part­ners,” she said. And we should con­tin­ue to coor­di­nate on that front. But we need to fun­da­men­tal­ly reeval­u­ate our rela­tion­ship with Sau­di Ara­bia, using our lever­age to stand up for Amer­i­can val­ues and inter­ests.” The U.S. and Sau­di part­ner­ship on counter-ter­ror­ism” has played a role in some of the most bel­liger­ent acts of our times, from the dis­as­trous mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion into Yemen to ongo­ing provo­ca­tions towards Iran to pro­tract­ed inter­ven­tion in Syria.

Anoth­er ques­tion is whether Har­ris would loud­ly denounce war and hold the line against new U.S. inva­sions. So far, unlike War­ren and Sanders, she has failed to cospon­sor S.J.Res.11, which pro­hib­it the unau­tho­rized use of Unit­ed States Armed Forces in hos­til­i­ties with respect to Venezuela.”

To the Right of Oba­ma: The Iran Deal

While Oba­ma is no paragon of peace, attacks on his Iran Deal aimed at pro­vok­ing war have threat­ened to make U.S. pol­i­cy even more con­fronta­tion­al. Har­ris, like many Democ­rats, pub­licly sup­port­ed reen­ter­ing the Iran Deal after Trump jet­ti­soned it (though she has repeat­ed­ly said she’d like to strength­en” the deal fur­ther, a com­mon talk­ing point employed by those who oppose the Iran deal from the right). Fur­ther­more, she cospon­sored both a bill and an amend­ment to the 2020 defense bud­get, each intro­duced by Tom Udall, aimed at pre­vent­ing unau­tho­rized mil­i­tary oper­a­tions against Iran.

But there are also signs Har­ris reflects a shift of most Democ­rats to the right of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion when it comes to Iran. In June 2017, she sup­port­ed the Coun­ter­ing Iran’s Desta­bi­liz­ing Activ­i­ties Act,” intro­duced by Repub­li­can Bob Cork­er, which would have imposed sanc­tions on any per­son or for­eign gov­ern­ment that the State Depart­ment deter­mined does busi­ness with an enti­ty con­nect­ed to Iran’s bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram. Har­ris vot­ed for this bill even though it went against the wish­es of for­mer Oba­ma Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry, who warned, 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.” Sanders was the only per­son who cau­cus­es with the Democ­rats in the Sen­ate to vote against the Cork­er bill. (War­ren vot­ed for it, but did not cosponsor).

Whether she adver­tis­es it or not, Har­ris has a record on mil­i­tarism. But unlike her his­to­ry as a law-and-order pros­e­cu­tor who draft­ed and enforced bru­tal tru­an­cy laws, her for­eign pol­i­cy record has attract­ed far less attention.

War is the are­na where pres­i­dents have the most pow­er to act with­out Con­gress, and is the area where a poten­tial Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion would like­ly have the most impact on the 96 per­cent of the world that doesn’t get to vote in U.S. elec­tions. Her record deserves close consideration.

This piece expands on sub­jects dis­cussed in Find­ing The Less­er Evil,” pub­lished in Jacobin’s sum­mer 2019 issue. Daniel Fer­nan­dez con­tributed research to this article.

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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