WASHINGTON – When she was ousted from the House Foreign Affairs Committee in February, Rep. Ilhan Omar vowed to continue her work on international issues and promote diplomacy – all with the expectation she would return to that panel again.
In a speech on the House floor the day that chamber voted along party lines to remove her from the foreign affairs panel, a defiant Omar said, “My leadership and voice will not diminish if I am not on this committee for one term.”
She’s kept her promise.
Omar, who was born in Somalia, has spent the past few months pressing the White House and her colleagues in Congress on a host of issues that are usually the purview of the Foreign Affairs Committee and has met with foreign diplomats and leaders. She also recently returned from a congressional delegation trip to Asia to further burnish her foreign policy credentials.
In fact, Omar, D-5th District, said she’s become more influential in the world of international affairs since her high-profile ouster and that her foreign policy work is “higher on the radar.”
“There’s a lot more interest in conversations and in speaking with me,” she said of foreign dignitaries and others in the international relations world who may be “more guarded” with members of a congressional panel. “The access is better,” she said.
Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said Omar’s solo act could be effective.
“So much of politics and diplomacy is messaging, and you can message from anywhere,” he said. “She can keep her hand in the game.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, and others who sought to remove Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was warranted because of what they said were Omar’s “antisemitic” remarks. But the move was also made in retaliation for former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ouster of Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, and Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, from their committee jobs in the previous Congress. Both Republicans had promoted violence against Democratic officeholders on social media.
In 2019, the first year she was in office, Omar attacked support for Israel as being “all about the Benjamins” and accused fellow lawmakers of an “allegiance to a foreign country.” Omar apologized for both remarks and supported a resolution denouncing them.
Nevertheless, Republicans who sought to punish Omar, insisted she was not fit to be involved in foreign policy.
“There is no debate that Ilhan Omar, the face of antisemitism in the Democrat Party, has no place representing American interests on the Foreign Affairs Committee,” said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th District in an interview with WCCO.
To Omar, the move to take her off the committee was purely political and seems to have increased her determination to be involved in world affairs.
Less than two weeks after she was voted off the panel, Omar criticized President Biden’s new restrictions on asylum seekers. Then she issued a statement on the breakout of Israeli violence on the West Bank. That was followed by a release decrying alleged irregularities in Nigeria’s presidential election and the introduction of a bill that would prohibit the United States from selling weapons to nations accused of violating human rights.
Omar has also had recent meetings with the Gambian ambassador to the United States, a delegation from the Czech Republic, French parliamentarians and Volker Türk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
And this month Omar, the first African-born member of the U.S. House, hopes to kick off a new African Working Group composed of Democrats who are interested in U.S./Africa policy.
“We hope that this would serve as an opportunity to have more in-depth discussions about Africa,” she said.
Baker said Omar can continue to try to influence foreign policy through legislation and speeches on the House floor.
“Just because she has been removed from a committee doesn’t mean there aren’t ways she can influence foreign policy,” Baker said.
‘Getting back to the committee’
Omar was invited on a trip earlier this month to Indonesia and Vietnam organized by Democrats on House and Senate foreign affairs panels. Vietnam is a frequent destination of U.S. officials hoping to address the Vietnam war’s long legacy. The trip was also aimed at enhancing cooperation on climate change, upholding human rights and helping other Association of Southeast Asian Nations members protect their “sovereignty and security in the face of increased aggression by the People’s Republic of China,” Omar said.
Sometimes Omar supports the Biden administration’s foreign policy, sometimes she does not.
For instance, last week, she and other House progressives voted for a measure sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, aimed to curb the U.S. war power in Somalia.
Omar said “there is no clear authority” under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to have U.S. troops in Somalia. The AUMF is a congressional resolution approved after the 9/11 attacks that allows U.S. forces to combat terrorism, but critics say it has been used too broadly to entangle troops in needless conflicts.
Omar said the presence of U.S. troops in Somalia “is used as a recruitment tool by terrorist organizations” in that country. Gaetz’s measure failed to garner majority support.
Omar said the United States has a “3-D” foreign policy that focuses on defense, diplomacy and development. She would rather diplomacy take precedent in U.S. relations with other nations and has been vocal about the need for the United States to press for a cease-fire in war-ravaged Sudan.
One of three Muslims in Congress, Omar has also focused on combatting Islamophobia, an issue she says is key to the Somali immigrants in her district. She said the issue has even more relevance in the Twin Cities with the recent arrest of a Plymouth man, Jackie Rahm Little, for the arson of two Minneapolis mosques. Authorities also said Little vandalized Omar’s Minneapolis district office and a Somali shopping center in January.
“I was drawn to care about the world because I am obviously someone who was saved by someone who cared,” Omar said.
The congresswoman lost her mother when she was two years old. When she was eight, her family fled the Somali Civil War for a refugee center in Kenya.
She said she is grateful for the Kenyans who allowed her family to cross the border, the U.N. Refugee Agency that created the camp she once lived in and the U.S. resettlement program that eventually helped Omar and her family emigrate to Alexandria, Virginia, then to Minnesota, a place that Omar said provided better opportunities and a lower cost of living.
While she said her access to foreign policy decision makers is better now, Omar expects to win her seat back on the panel, assuming Democrats take back control of the House from the GOP in 2024.
“I look forward to getting back on the committee,” she said.