America's new squad makes waves | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

America's new squad makes waves

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Congress-Members

US congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (left), Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. File/ AFP

Four high-profile freshmen members of Congress, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, dubbed the “Squad,” are making waves in Washington and rocking the status quo boat. They are among the new group of “women of colour” in the US lower house which has always been dominated by white men who still form a 60 per cent majority.

Omar was born in Somalia and is a naturalised US citizen, Tlaib’s parents immigrated from Palestine, Ocasio-Cortez is of Puerto Rican background and Pressley is African-American. The average age of House members is 58 years. Omar is 37, Tlaib 43, Ocasio-Cortez 29 and Pressley 45. As they are not part of the establishment, called the “club,” they do not mind making waves. Each in her own way is rocking the boat.

All four are influenced by “democratic socialism” preached by Bernie Sanders, a young 77, since the 2016 presidential election campaign, as are most of the Democratic party candidates running for the 2020 nomination.

The Squad is part of a progressive Democratic vanguard working for major changes in US foreign as well as domestic policy. Commenting on Israel’s ban on a proposed visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank of a delegation headed by Tlaib and Omar, members of the Squad most critical of Israel, Omar stated, “It is an affront that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, under pressure from President (Donald) Trump, would deny entry to representatives of the US government. Trump’s Muslim ban is what Israel is implementing, this time against two duly elected Members of Congress. Denying entry into Israel not only limits our ability to learn from Israelis, but also to enter the Palestinian territories.”

She continued, “As a member of the House (of Representatives) Committee on Foreign Affairs, it is my job to conduct oversight of foreign aid from the United States of America and to legislate on human rights practices around the world. The irony of the ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East making such a decision is that it is both an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation.”

Pressley called on the US to re-evaluate their relationship with Israel: “They are duly elected members of Congress and we cannot allow them to be marginalised, discriminated against nor targeted because of their gender, their religious beliefs nor their ethnicity.” Unlike Tlaib and Omar, she is not a supporter of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement to exert pressure on Israel to grant Palestinians self-determination in their land.

Pressley’s words were echoed by Mark Pocan, who, with Pramila Jayapal, co-chairs the House’s Progressive Caucus. An exceptional white man from Wisconsin, Pocan, 55, called for a prohibition on all Congressional tours of Israel and cuts in the $3.8 billion (Dhs14b) the US gives Israel annually. Progressive legislators have found their voice and are challenging regional policy dogma. This includes the alliance with Israel, the US refusal to seek dialogue with Iran, deportations of regional asylum seekers to conflicted countries and the false belief that the US military is a force for good in the world. This belief is widely held, although US interventions in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere have produced chaos and destabilised these countries and their neighbours.

Omar also adopted a tough line during hearings to confirm veteran Republican official Elliott Abrams as US envoy on the Venezuela crisis. She asked him, “Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if you believed they were serving US interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua?”

During the administration of Ronald Reagan (1981-98), Abrams was involved in the US campaign against leftist movements seeking to oust Central American military dictators and was convicted for withholding from Congress information over the Iran-Contra scandal. This was an illegal deal for the sale of weapons to Iran (during the Iran-Iraq war) and the use of the proceeds to fund right-wing Contras fighting Socialist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Abrams was pardoned by George H.W. Bush and employed by George W. Bush as his special assistant. Along with Bush Junior’s Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Abrams was one of the senior officials to press Bush to wage the war on Iraq which has produced nothing but disaster for Iraq and this region.

Progressive pundits outside Congress have joined in the assault on the status quo. In an article published in the New Republic, Kate Kizer, policy director of Win Without War, a network of leftist foreign policy activists and organisations, wrote, “Congresswoman Omar has absolutely moved the conversation forward on how we can build a more values-driven, morally just foreign policy... She has been fearless in speaking truth to power, whether that’s questioning why our government advocates for human rights only when convenient... or holding officials... accountable for their role in past human rights atrocities.”

Unable to zero in on the 20-odd Democratic candidates seeking their party’s nomination for the presidency, Trump has, for the time being at least, targeted the Squad. In mid-July he raised a storm of protest by telling them to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came,” although three were born in the US and are US citizens. Tlaib is from Detroit, Ocasio-Cortez from New York and Pressley from Boston. Omar cannot “go back” to her birth country as it is “infested” with war. His comments were strongly criticised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then British Prime Minister Theresa May and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, all women. Merkel and May are far from being progressives, while Ardern is a Labour politician.

Determined to remain firmly in the political spotlight, Trump fears the widespread recognition and publicity the Squad has attracted. While Omar and Tlaib have dominated recent news cycles, Ocasio-Cortez has a huge social media presence and five million Twitter followers. Most of the Democratic party’s 2020 candidates back her Green New Deal which seeks to save the planet from climate change that Trump and the Republicans claim is a hoax. She says she was elected because “Americans are sick of how Washington works.” This has been true for generations.

While her focus has been mainly on domestic affairs, the outspoken Pressley calls Trump the “occupant” of the White House. “He does not embody the principles, the responsibility, the grace, the integrity of a true president.”