Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), pictured at the Capitol on March 13, 2019, were barred from visiting Israel on Thursday by the Netanyahu government. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), pictured at the Capitol on March 13, 2019, were barred from visiting Israel on Thursday by the Netanyahu government. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Progressives Are Also Right About Foreign Policy

America cannot lead the world in embracing multiracial democracy and rejecting authoritarianism, while also condoning the actions of Netanyahu and the Saudis and launching military strikes wherever it wants.

On economic issues, the Democratic Party has moved from "the era of big government is over" to a more populist agenda. On racial issues, the party has eschewed "Sister Souljah" policies and rhetoric designed to woo White swing voters for an agenda that directly seeks to take on systemic racism. Now it's time for the Democrats to make a third big shift: accepting that the party's progressives are right on foreign policy, too.

What's happened between the Israelis and the Palestinians over the past two weeks has validated the Democratic left's views of that conflict. The left has long argued that the United States' tight alignment with the Israeli government is both a moral failure that renders Palestinians second-class citizens and a strategic one that hasn't led to peace. Israel bombed Gaza in a way that seemed—at best—insufficiently concerned with the deaths of Palestinian civilians, including children, and the destruction of homes and offices. Congressional Democrats, even more moderate members such as Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), criticized the Biden administration for not quickly pushing for a cease-fire. One was eventually reached, and it appears the administration's diplomacy helped end the violence. But the underlying problems remain: The two-state solution seems dead, and the status quo isn't working.

A foreign policy vision is deeply flawed if it requires constantly coddling of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or not sanctioning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Biden himself has long advocated strong U.S. support for Israel, so it's no surprise that he didn't break from that approach. But on a number of other foreign policy issues, the president has already embraced the left's positions: withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, limiting drone strikes, increasing refugee admissions and supporting efforts to loosen patent protections on coronavirus vaccines.

To be sure, there are a number of issues where Biden isn't embracing the foreign policy left. He doesn't want to cut U.S. defense spending, as progressives do. He seems determined to view China as an adversary like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a zero-sum approach that some progressives worry will make it harder to collaborate with the Chinese on issues such as climate change and could lead to more anti-Asian bigotry.

The foreign policy left is an informal grouping, but I'm generally referring here to people such as Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); organizations such as MoveOn, U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Win Without War and Oxfam; and media outlets such as Democracy Now and Jewish Currents. Many but not all of these are part of the broader progressive wing of the party.

Their vision on foreign policy, as on domestic policy, is centered around expanding equality and redistributing power from elites and the rich to rank-and-file people.

"Palestinian lives matter," Sanders wrote in the New York Times recently, illustrating in a three-word phrase how the left wants to change U.S. foreign policy.

The moral rightness of the left's vision is undeniable. Why shouldn't the United States do whatever it can to help people across the world get coronavirus vaccines? Why, in peacetime, should we have a defense budget larger than those of the next seven biggest spenders combined? A foreign policy vision is deeply flawed if it requires constantly coddling of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or not sanctioning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The United States shouldn't be giving billions in military aid to Israel without tying it to better treatment of the Palestinians. We should be careful about imposing economic sanctions, because they often hurt ordinary people much worse than the targeted country's leaders.

But it's not just about morality. U.S. foreign policy just isn't effective in many areas. A sustained U.S. troop presence wasn't bringing stability to Afghanistan. A policy of drone strikes, a tight alliance with the Saudi and Israeli governments and constant friction with the Iranian government isn't creating a Middle East that is good for the United States or for those who live there. Andan embrace ofbig international trade deals and globalized capitalism has coincided with wage stagnation for millions of Americans.

It's time to try something different.

I have been surprised by the administration's embrace of more liberal ideas on race and economics. But reality, particularly the covid-19 pandemic, validated the left's arguments about the United States' racial and economic inequality. Powerful new voices, particularly the millions protesting after George Floyd's killing, also pushed Biden and the party establishment to rethink their views.

Now, reality is showing how our foreign policy needs to change. America cannot lead the world in embracing multiracial democracy and rejecting authoritarianism, as the Biden administration wants, while also condoning the actions of Netanyahu and the Saudis and launching military strikes wherever it wants. And new voices are emerging on foreign policy, too. Steps from Air Force One last week, Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan congresswoman of Palestinian descent, courageously challenged the incumbent president of her own party to do right by the Palestinians.

The president and his team have been willing to discard old norms on race and economics. I commend them. They have a similar opportunity on foreign policy. They should take it.


© 2021 Washington Post
 Perry Bacon Jr.

Perry Bacon Jr.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a Washington Post columnist. Before joining The Post in May 2021, Perry had stints as a government and elections writer for Time magazine, The Post's national desk, theGrio and FiveThirtyEight. He has also been been an on-air analyst at MSNBC and a fellow at New America. He grew up in Louisville and lives there now.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

House Progressives Urge Reforms to 'Hold These Rogue Justices to Account'

Recent rulings by the Supreme Court's right-wing majority have made clear the need for substantive changes, including expansion, argues Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

Kenny Stancil ·


'Win for Wildlife' as Federal Court Restores Endangered Species Protections Gutted by Trump

"In the midst of a global extinction crisis, the court's decision to vacate the rules will help ensure that imperiled species receive the protections they desperately need," said one advocate.

Julia Conley ·


Senate Urged to Block Biden's Pro-Privatization Nominee for Social Security Board

"The Senate can, and must, block this terrible nomination," Social Security Works said of the administration's choice of Andrew Biggs.

Jake Johnson ·


GOP Senator Defends Guantánamo Bay Prison as 'Absolutely Vital Institution'

Sen. James Inhofe's comments come as congressional Democrats are reviving efforts to close the notorious U.S. military prison.

Brett Wilkins ·


Doctor Describes Gruesome 'Wartime Injuries' at Highland Park Shooting

"The people who were killed were killed instantly," said Dr. David Baum, who ran towards the victims after gunfire rang out at a July 4th parade.

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo