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10 September 2020

Joaquin Castro: the Congressman hoping to transform US foreign policy

A progressive contender in the race to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee is already changing the conversation.

By Emily Tamkin

“This opportunity comes along only once in a while,” Congressman Joaquin Castro said.

We were speaking over the phone on Labor Day (observed in the United States in September), and the opportunity Castro referred to was nothing less than the ability to remake US foreign policy. To not only reimagine the US’s role in the world, but to actually, tangibly change it. It is the chance to take that opportunity, Castro said, that has spurred him to enter the race for Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Castro, 45, is not actually a member of the Progressive Caucus, unlike Congressman Brad Sherman, the most senior representative in the race. Castro, a four-term member of Congress, isn’t known as one of the most left-leaning candidates on the Hill, unlike socialist superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or his fellow Foreign Affairs Committee member Ilhan Omar. But he has undoubtedly positioned himself as the progressive candidate in the race to replace Eliot Engel as committee chair. He has stressed, for example, the need to rectify the exclusion of Palestinian voices from US foreign policy, and has taken part in several town halls with concerned groups.

“One of the things I tried to do is make the whole process more transparent and more accountable,” he said over the phone. “Even though only Democrats in [the House of Representatives] get to vote – the direction that the next chair chooses to take this committee is hugely consequential.”

Typically, the chair is the most senior member of the committee. But these are atypical times. “For too long, our foreign policy has been dominated by military and other coercive tools like sanctions,” he wrote in a July article outlining his pitch to readers. “In this moment of pandemic and protest, we are confronting hard truths about how unequal our nation remains. Our foreign policy is due for a similar reckoning.”

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Castro’s argument is that he is as well placed as anyone to lead that reckoning. He’s a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but also of the Armed Services Committee, from which he took a leave to serve on the Intelligence Committee. He is the only member of Congress who has served in all three and thus is, he says, steeped in these issues. And that has led him to a particular conclusion: “I do think that this is a moment where the Democratic Caucus and the Congress need to reflect on where we’re headed,” Castro, who represents his native San Antonio, Texas and some of its surrounding suburbs, told me.

The hopeful present outlook for Progressive foreign policy in the United States is the result of a long, uphill journey. In 2001, the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists was California’s Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a lonely Cassandra warning her colleagues that they should be “careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target”. It has taken the country 19 years, a war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a president who speaks so plainly about the transaction of money for US military power, for the country to get where it is today: a place where many are pushing for US foreign policy to focus on rights, not might. “End endless war” is now a common refrain.

There are groups dedicated to the cause, like Win Without War and the Quincy Institute (named after President John Quincy Adams, who warned against going out in search of “monsters to destroy”). There are new, openly, unabashedly progressive members of Congress, like Omar, who, in her capacity as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, turned her questioning of Republican foreign policy hand and Trump appointee Eliot Abrams into a blistering critique of past policy. And there are members like Democratic Representative Ro Khanna, who has pushed the United States to reevaluate its role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

There are also more traditional foreign policymakers who are being ousted. In June, former Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman ran a successful primary challenge against the current Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel. Throughout the course of his campaign, Bowman made the case that he was the more progressive, anti-interventionist candidate on foreign policy.

But for all of the momentum and strength of the progressive foreign policy movement, the actual policy change has remained limited. The president may speak of himself as a dove when it suits him, but actual American military commitments abroad have increased, not decreased, and Democratic leadership, both in general and on the Hill, sticks more closely to the middle, particularly on foreign matters.

[See also: What would it mean for US foreign policy if Eliot Engel loses his primary race?]

At the time of Engel’s primary race, I wrote that his defeat would not mean that much. In part because one member of Congress cannot single-handedly change US presence in the Middle East or policy toward Israel. And in part because, assuming Democrats keep the House, whoever replaced Engel as chair – and thus took on the power of setting the committee’s foreign policy priorities – would likely have more in common with Engel than Bowman. But then Castro announced he would be running for the chair, challenging the aforementioned Sherman and Representative Gregory Meeks.

Israel has been highlighted as one point of disagreement between the three contenders and the direction they might take. Castro and Meeks, unlike Sherman, voted against a 2017 resolution that objected to the United Nations Security Council calling Israeli settlements in the West Bank a “flagrant violation of international law”; Sherman has argued that Castro “has said things that some supporters of the US-Israel relationship are very concerned about, and some who dislike the US-Israel relationship are happy [about],” though later said he, like Castro, would restrict aid to Israel over annexation.

Yet though policy toward Israel is often used as a marker of how progressive a particular candidate’s foreign policy is, it is not the only one. Castro has criticised the Foreign Affairs Committee’s past handling of immigration from Central America. At full committee level, he said, it is handled largely by the committee on homeland security, where people are inherently seen as threats, and not by the full House Foreign Affairs Committee.

There is also climate change – and migration and immigration forced by climate change. These are often treated as future issues, but in our conversation Castro stressed that they are here with us now.

And there is international trade, and the extent to which trade deals protect workers’ rights. Plus China, and the degree to which US policy focuses on human rights. (Both matters Castro highlighted as important issues in his written pitch.)

And then there’s the question of how, exactly, the future chair will “end endless war” and curb the military-industrial complex from the perch of the Foreign Affairs Committee, since that committee doesn’t actually deal with the defence budget. To that point, Castro noted that every year the National Defense Authorisation Act, which specifies military expenditures, is treated as a must-pass bill.

“What happens is, every year, or just about every year, there are significant pieces of legislation on NDAA that belong in separate bills,” Castro said. “There’s a cost to that. You’re running all these foreign affairs issues through a military/defence lens.” But foreign affairs issues are human issues, and in many cases human rights issues. And the committee could be the place, or at least a place, where they start to be treated as such, he argued.

[See also: Why Ilhan Omar’s This is What America Looks Like is not the usual bland political memoir]

Before I could ask him what his priorities would be, he started talking about the importance of rebuilding American diplomacy, which he describes as having been “damaged, neglected, [and] atrophied during Donald Trump’s presidency.”

“I think it is derogatory, what Donald Trump has done with the State Department.”

That includes, of course, the conduct of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Castro is also chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on oversight, in which capacity he opened an investigation into Pompeo’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Pompeo recorded his speech in Jerusalem, on a trip that was almost certainly paid for with taxpayer dollars, possibly violating US law.

“If we can’t hold people accountable – including ourselves,” he told me, “then all of the things we believe, and many of the things we espouse, we’ll never actually realise.”

It is still, by Castro’s own admission, an open race. The other candidates, too, are making their cases (Sherman, for example, has stressed his seniority and said his bookish nature would be an asset). Yet by bringing outside groups into the discussion and speaking about the subjects he has, Castro has already changed and challenged the form of the US foreign policy conversation. Should he win, he will be as well positioned as anyone in Washington to also push for greater change on the substance.

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