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No 'wars of choice': Joaquin Castro eyes top foreign policy role in US House

In bid to become chair of House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democratic congressman lays out principles for US diplomacy
'For too long, our foreign policy has been dominated by military and other coercive tools like sanctions,' Castro says (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro wants to be the next chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and he has a bold pitch for the job: rethinking Washington's priorities and methods abroad - including sanctions and military interventions - to "achieve a more open, peaceful and just world".

Castro's vision stands in stark contrast to the hawkish views of the man he's looking to replace, Eliot Engel, who will be leaving Congress early next year after he lost his seat to progressive primary challenger Jamaal Bowman last month.

"Wars of choice have diminished our moral standing, destabilized entire regions - as the Iraq War did to the Middle East - burdened our troops and their families, wasted limited resources, and killed innocent lives," Castro wrote in a blog post published on Tuesday.

Heads of committees set the legislative agenda on related issues with the ability to hold hearings, fast-track legislation and hold up bills.

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A 45-year-old Texas Democrat, Castro has been in Congress for almost eight years - a shorter tenure than other candidates vying for Engel's gavel. The congressman is calling for a "more inclusive process that looks beyond solely seniority" for picking leadership positions.

"Traditionally, selecting new chairs is a behind-the-scenes process, but at this moment in history, the American people deserve more transparency and accountability... This race is an opportunity to democratize foreign policy," he said.

If the House leadership were to remain the same after the November election, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Democratic Whip James Clyburn would play key roles in choosing the heads of committees. 

Marcus Montgomery, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC who tracks congressional affairs, said Castro appears to be pushing to rally the party's progressive base behind his bid for the committee's gavel to put pressure on the older, more centrist leadership.

"The party is getting more progressive, and so he's basically calculating that if he makes a pitch in a public campaign, then it'll force the leadership to seriously consider it," Montgomery told Middle East Eye.

Castro's vision

In his post on Tuesday, Castro outlined a more principled and dovish standing for America on the world stage. He also voiced scepticism towards the incessant use of sanctions against adversaries and called for strengthening American diplomacy.

"We need to change the way the United States approaches the world. For too long, our foreign policy has been dominated by military and other coercive tools like sanctions," he wrote.

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"The costs to us have been high and the benefits few. Far too often, the primary victims abroad are civilians whom we should be seeking to empower, not impoverish. We need to move beyond blunt punitive measure and reactive crisis management and recommit to proactive diplomacy to shape a better tomorrow."

He also questioned America's policies in contributing to global crises, while stressing that he would emphasise the nation's identity as a country of immigrants and a "place of refuge for the vulnerable".

"We must also address the fact that too often our foreign policy has been a driver of displacement from Central America to the Middle East, while rising sea levels and extreme weather are creating climate refugees," the congressman said. 

"We need to address the root causes of migration while also doing our part to welcome new Americans."

Castro also underscored the need for multilateralism and voiced support for "complex, but successful international agreements such as the Iran Nuclear Deal, Paris Climate Accords, and the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba."

Washington-based Middle East analyst Alia Awadallah said the agenda that Castro outlined on Tuesday is "forward looking and progressive, but not at all radical".

"All Democrats recognise the need to re-prioritise diplomacy as our primary means of engagement in the world," Awadallah told MEE in an email.

'I hope and think Democrats are ready to have serious conversations about the long-standing challenges Castro describes'

- Alia Awadallah, analyst

"Many Democrats have already questioned the wisdom of sweeping sanctions and an over-reliance on military intervention. Castro is simply articulating these ideas and asking that Democrats ensure there is a healthy and rigorous debate on US foreign policy moving forward."

If Democrats retain control of the House, Castro will compete for Engel's post against the more hawkish Brad Sherman and establishment favourite Gregory Meeks. 

If Joe Biden succeeds in unseating President Donald Trump, Castro's emphasis on diplomacy with Iran may leave him more in line with the future president ,who has vowed to return to the nuclear deal with Tehran. Sherman and Engel initially opposed the agreement.

Awadallah said appointing Castro as the chair of the foreign affairs committee would help bridge the ideological and generational gap within the Democratic Party.

"I hope and think Democrats are ready to have serious conversations about the long-standing challenges Castro describes in his blog post," she said. 

"At least, they are more prepared to do so than in any time in the past two decades. Given the increased focus on diversity and inclusion, it seems they are also ready to begin empowering a new generation of foreign policy leadership."

On Israel-Palestine

One major foreign policy area where progressives and centrists appear to be at odds is support for Israel, where younger activists have been calling for a more even-handed approach in the region. 

Last week, Castro told the Washington Post that he plans to elevate voices of Palestinians and other "excluded" communities if chosen as chair.

'The Palestinian question is no longer a question of statehood; it's now a human rights discussion'

- Marcus Montgomery, Arab Center Washington DC

"I think too often Palestinian voices have been excluded," he said. "If the United States is going to be an arbiter of peace, it has to be willing to hear from the different sides, and in my estimation we’ve not always done that."

Montgomery called Castro's statement "incredible", saying that his stance reflects the progressive view that combines domestic and foreign policy issues surrounding justice.

"The Palestinian question is no longer a question of statehood; it's now a human rights discussion," Montgomery said.

Castro has regularly criticised Israel in the past, but he remains to the right of many of his more left-wing colleagues on the conflict.

For example, the congressman did not sign Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's letter that vowed to impose conditions on military aid to Israel if it goes through with its plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Neither is he a co-sponsor of Congresswoman Betty McCollum's bill that would ban US assistance from contributing to the detention of Palestinian children.

Still, he would represent an enormous shift on the issue from the staunchly pro-Israel incumbent - Engel.

Last year, Castro voted in favour of a resolution denouncing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to pressure Israel to end its abuses against Palestinians.

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Around the same time in 2019, the Texas congressman also co-sponsored a bill introduced by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar that would uphold the right to boycott as a constitutionally protected free speech activity. Omar's proposed legislation is a push against anti-BDS laws that aim to legally restrict efforts to boycott Israel. 

And while Engel has welcomed Trump's so-called "Deal of the Century" plan for the conflict, which would allow Israel to keep all of its West Bank settlements in exchange for recognising a disjointed Palestinian state, Castro has come out forcefully against the scheme. 

In January, Castro called Trump's plan a "unilateral imposition on the Palestinian people".

"My thoughts on Middle East plan: not inclusive of all parties & dead on arrival. This is the inevitable result of Trump’s approach to the conflict not as a serious diplomatic effort, but as a real estate deal to be negotiated by a developer who happens to be his son-in-law," the congressman wrote in a series of tweets referring to White House adviser Jared Kushner. 

Earlier this month, 70 progressive groups sent a letter urging Democratic House leaders to "support someone for committee chair who has a demonstrated track record of foreign policy leadership reflecting the principles, priorities, and aspirations of both the Democratic Caucus and rank-and-file Democratic voters."

The organisations outlined a set of criteria for Engel's successor including supporting a "just Resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict", opposing regime-change policies and sanctions that harm civilians and prioritising diplomacy.

"We ask that the HFAC Chair oppose illegal U.S. efforts to forcibly overthrow foreign governments and instead support negotiation, mediation, dialogue, and a policy of transfers of power through free, fair, and pre-scheduled elections where the voting public has a full opportunity to decide on the future of their nation," the letter said.

Signatories to the letter included Demand Progress, Win Without War, MoveOn, IfNotNow, Yemeni Alliance Committee and Just Foreign Policy.

The groups added that the new chair should use a "combination of pressure and incentives", including leveraging US aid to Israel to uphold international law, including ending the occupation, disbanding settlements, lifting the blockade on Gaza and "ending all attacks on civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinian".

Limitations

Montgomery said replacing Engel with Castro would be a "huge loss" to pro-Israel centrists within the party, but he warned that even as the chair of a powerful committee, the congressman would still need to answer to the legislative priorities of his caucus.

"There's going to be limitations," Montgomery said. "As the chairman, really more than anything, he has the ability to drive the agenda, but he still can't muscle through legislation, especially if the broader Democratic leadership is opposed to it."

Awadallah echoed Montgomery's comments on the restrictions the chair faces as "one person".

"Castro would certainly play a hugely important role in shepherding legislation and setting the tone for foreign policy discussions, but he would still have to navigate the party’s divisions and incorporate priorities from different committee members," Awadallah told MEE. 

"That will require open mindedness, a willingness to form coalitions within the party, and a commitment to fostering difficult conversations about the trajectory of US foreign policy. 

"Castro appears to possess all of those qualities, as well as the political savvy and support across the party to navigate sensitive foreign policy issues."