Rep. Eliot Engel’s Positions on Foreign Policy Are Hawkish — and Shameful

Is there a House Democrat who better personifies the more aggressive and amoral wing of the Democratic Party than Eliot Engel?

The House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, who has been representing New York’s 16th Congressional District since 1989, has one of the most hawkish — and shameful — Democratic foreign policy records on Capitol Hill.

Let’s start with Iraq. Engel was among a minority of House Democrats to vote for the illegal invasion of Iraq. “It would be a monumental mistake not to support” George W. Bush, he proclaimed on the House floor in October 2002, as he disingenuously tried to link Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Al Qaeda and the wider “war on terror.” He told his colleagues, “In this era of terrorism, the U.S. has to be proactive.” Lest we forget, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis were killed as a result of that vote.

Then there’s Iran. President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, was negotiated not just between the United States and Tehran, but with the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union. The historic 2015 agreement saw the Iranian government publicly reaffirm that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons” and, to quote Obama, subjected Iran “to the most comprehensive, intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated to monitor a nuclear program.”

Yet Engel, then the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, opposed Obama’s Iran deal. In September 2015, he was one of only 25 House Democrats to vote against it — compared to 162 Democrats who backed the JCPOA. (Engel has since said he reluctantly supports the Iran deal and criticized Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from it).

How about Saudi Arabia? In 2016, Engel was one of only 16 Democrats to join with 200 Republicans and defeat a measure that would have banned the sale of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. Cluster munitions, as my colleague Alex Emmons noted, often leave behind “mine-like explosives that kill civilians and destroy farmland decades after a conflict ends.”

At the time of the vote, Saudi jets were in the midst of dropping U.S.-made cluster bombs on civilian areas in Yemen — and Engel helped them to carry on doing so!

The House Foreign Affairs Committee chair has since shifted his position on Saudi Arabia, and even voted to end U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen in 2019. Yet his opposition to the Saudis only goes so far: In December 2018, the month after the CIA determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, for example, Engel told NPR that he did not want to see MBS “punished.”

“We need to talk to him about the disagreements we have,” said the New York congressman. Got that? Disagreements.

There’s also Egypt. Engel was a vocal supporter of the violent military coup in Cairo in 2013, which led to the mass killing of hundreds of unarmed protesters in Rabaa Square, and the imprisonment and torture of tens of thousands of Egyptians. The New York Democrat also slammed the Obama administration for daring to consider cuts in U.S. aid to Egypt’s brutal military. So much for his support for human rights!

And, of course, how can we forget the Israel-Palestine conflict? Engel is one of Israel’s most die-hard supporters on Capitol Hill, often taking positions to the right of that country’s own leaders. As foreign policy scholar Stephen Zunes has documented in the Progressive, Engel “was an outspoken supporter of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” insists the United States “should veto any and all U.N. resolutions critical of Israel,” and has “pushed for defunding the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.”

Despite growing support for conditioning aid to Israel from across the party’s political spectrum, and from Democratic voters, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chair has denounced the proposal to condition aid as “one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.” Time and again, he puts all the blame for the occupation … on the occupied Palestinians themselves.

Is it any wonder, then, that the pro-Trump lobbyist Morton Klein, who has his own lengthy history of bigoted remarks, has called Engel his “friend” and a person “who fully understands the truth of the Arab-Islamic war against Israel and the West”?

Backing illegal wars and coups. Appeasing foreign dictators. Defending Israel’s repression of the Palestinians. This is the Engel foreign policy record. He may be presented in the press as “mainstream” or a “moderate,” but his votes on Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia put him in a hawkish, hard-right minority inside of his own party. In fact, as my colleagues Ryan Grim and Akela Lacy revealed, a Republican super PAC is helping fund Engel’s reelection effort, behind the scenes, via a $100,000 donation to a pro-Engel super PAC called Democratic Majority for Israel.

Meanwhile, his primary opponent, educator and activist Jamaal Bowman, has defended the humanity of Palestinian children and told me in a recent interview that when the Israeli government is committing human rights violations “we have to have honest conversations about that.” Bowman also pointed out that, unlike Engel, he does not “take a dime from weapons manufacturers” and supports “dramatically” reducing defense spending.

Rather than backing Bowman, Democratic Party leaders like Nancy Pelosi, James Clyburn, and Adam Schiff have lined up behind Engel. Hillary Clinton decided to make the New York Democrat her first primary endorsement of 2020. “The establishment is racing to save the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman,” tweeted New York Times political reporter Shane Goldmacher.

Bowman, in stark contrast, has the backing of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and — on Tuesday — Elizabeth Warren.

Like so many politicians who are keen to bomb brown people in the Middle East, and ask questions (or offer regrets!) later, Engel has a nasty streak. Forget his hot-mic confession that he “wouldn’t care” about speaking at an event on racism if he didn’t have a primary to fight. Forget his campaign’s attempt to smear Bowman as a communist. Forget his ludicrous dismissal of AOC’s endorsement of his opponent as a sign of dictatorship.

Consider, instead, the manner in which the New York congressman treated a Muslim student at Manhattan College, in April 2019, after she dared to challenge him over his long history of support for Israel’s human rights violations.

Engel’s response to this young, female student of color?

“You know, you ought to be nicer too,” he said. “Put a smile on your face. It wouldn’t hurt.”

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