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Removed from Foreign Affairs, Omar amplifies her voice

Jun 04, 2023

​House Republicans removed Congress’ only African-born lawmaker from the Foreign Affairs Committee early this year, but the effort to punish Rep. Ilhan Omar appears to have instead made her an even more prominent voice on the issues she cares about.

Republicans said they removed Omar, D-Minn., for her years-old comments that referenced antisemitic tropes, taking away a platform she sometimes used to criticize U.S. foreign policy, particularly on human rights. But in the four months since her ouster, Omar has gained more clout with foreign embassies, visiting parliamentarians, the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers than she had managed in four years on the committee.

"It's been actually fascinating," Omar said in an interview last week in her office. "Since I was removed from committee, I think I’ve had more visits from parliamentarians around the world and visits with ambassadors in the last three months than I would in a year or two while I was on the committee."

Omar stands out, even among Democratic progressives, for her willingness to call out human rights violations, whether committed by an adversary, an ally, a security partner or Washington itself. She is one of the few lawmakers raising the alarm about human rights violations and democratic backsliding in India under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

She sees the willingness by Washington to sweep human rights under the rug in favor of national security priorities as ultimately shortsighted and even self-defeating, saying it harms America's credibility and makes it difficult to win human rights concessions and respect in other parts of the world.

The third-term Somali American lawmaker attributes the surge in outside interest in her foreign policy activities to the exposure she received when Republicans removed her from the panel.

"I think one of the mistakes that Republicans made in their calculation to remove me from the committee was their inability to understand that the effort itself was going to amplify my work on the committee and thus encourage more people to be interested in having a conversation with me about foreign policy," she said.

Omar is now sought out for meetings by ambassadors, particularly those from Africa. She introduced a bill in March that would overhaul the arms export process; in April she was appointed a member of the House Democracy Partnership, a bipartisan group that seeks to deepen ties with foreign legislatures; and in May she launched the U.S.-Africa Policy Working Group that is meant to be a parallel forum to the Foreign Affairs Africa Subcommittee for oversight and legislative work.

"This was my priority committee and I spent a lot of time doing op-eds, talking about foreign policy and almost no reporter was covering that work. And even the progressive world wasn't really talking about it unless there was some controversy," Omar said. "I think this process of removal because it was so drawn out, gave so many people the opportunity to ask the question, like, ‘This can't just be because they don't want her on the committee? What was she actually doing on the committee?’"

At one point, Omar used a panel hearing to draw uncomfortable comparisons between International Criminal Court investigations into alleged human rights crimes committed not only by Hamas and the Taliban but also the U.S. and Israel, a move that outraged Republicans as well as some Democrats and led to death threats against the lawmaker and her staff.

But Omar, whose district includes Minneapolis, said she had a right to publicly question inconsistencies with foreign policy, particularly on human rights, and she eventually made allies out of some of the same Jewish Democrats who had earlier criticized her comments about Israel.

One of those Democrats, Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., was at a reception last month at the Library of Congress for the launch of the U.S.-Africa Policy Working Group, where he called Omar an "inspiration" when it comes to Africa-related policy.

Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Africa Subcommittee, was also at the event.

"When we’re back in the majority, Ilhan will take her rightful place as chair of the Africa Subcommittee!" Jacobs, to loud cheers, told the crowd of diplomats, academics, international development experts, Capitol Hill staffers and a generous handful of Democratic lawmakers.

"She was the only person who was actually born and grew up in Africa, lived in a refugee camp," Jacobs said. "Whether or not you agree with her views, it's an important perspective to have around the table while we’re making these really important decisions."

Omar said at the reception the new Africa working group, which will include briefings with administration officials, would be a "platform for active, sincere consistent engagement with experts, diplomats and policymakers working with and within the continent." The group held its first policy briefing on Sudan last week.

Omar and her family fled war in Somalia when she was a young girl and lived for four years in a refugee camp in Kenya. She immigrated to the United States at age 12 and went on to work on women's rights issues and in local government and in Minnesota's Legislature before her election to the House in 2018.

She has drawn progressive plaudits and conservative ire for her membership in the "squad," a small group of Democratic House lawmakers initially composed of female freshmen of color with policy positions to the left of the party.

But the GOP attacks on her foreign policy views have done the most to raise her profile and differentiate her even from other junior House members and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, of which she is deputy chair.

"Since she came into office, Rep. Omar has been not just an officeholder but a symbol of a diverse country and a broadening of the Democratic caucus. In some ways, she's sought out a prominent role — but in other ways, it's her opponents who have made her prominent," Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science and international relations theory at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said in an email. "Now, she's freer to act and represent not only her constituents but broader groups precisely because she's prominent and credible on these issues."

In fact, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., was overheard in an elevator after the February vote calling it the "stupidest vote in the world," while Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, agreed and added it would only turn Omar into a "martyr."

Modi's visit to Washington in June may give Omar another chance to amplify her criticism of U.S. policy even as President Joe Biden honors the Indian leader at a state dinner on June 22. Modi is expected to address a joint meeting of Congress earlier in the day.

She said in March she was "profoundly concerned" with the human rights situation in Punjab, a state in India's northwest. She listed the Modi government's "draconian communications shutdown," the arrests of hundreds of people and the blocking of Twitter accounts of key civic leaders and journalists, comparing it to the crackdown carried out in recent years on Indian-administered Kashmir.

"We hear a lot about how our relationship with India's government is based on mutual values of democracy and human rights, in spite of their quadrupling trade with Russia since the invasion of Ukraine," Omar said. "We hear this in spite of their constant violations of human rights."

Modi — previously under a U.S. travel ban due to his record as governor of Gujarat in 2002, when Hindu mobs killed some 1,000 Muslims — will visit as the administration is trying to woo India away from its growing trade ties with Russia and to prod New Delhi into adopting a stronger stance with other Indo-Pacific democracies against China's regional territorial aspirations.

"I think it is one of the disappointing aspects about Washington," Omar said. "There are values that people are willing to talk about when it comes to the advancement of human rights and democratic principles but all of that sort of goes out the window if there is some sort of economic or geopolitical interests that a country serves. I happen to think that we should be consistent in our care for safeguarding our values and advancing them globally."