In the new Congress, Elizabeth Warren is aiming to address the biggest hole in her political resume: foreign policy.
Over the course of the past four years on Capitol Hill, the Massachusetts senator has carved out space as one of the Left’s leading voices on economic issues, casting herself as an enemy of Wall Street and a defender of the middle class. But when it came to the country’s most heated national security debates, she faded into the background.
Over the next four years, though, that will certainly change. Warren snagged a spot on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where she will play an important role in crafting defense and military policy as the new administration takes power. Warren’s role on the influential panel will allow her to gain critical foreign policy experience, as well as check off another box if she chooses to seek higher office. Regardless of whether she runs for president in 2020, Warren will have the opportunity to become one of the Democrats’ most outspoken leaders in this realm at a time when the party will be in the minority and lacking in rising stars.
How exactly she goes about that, however, remains to be seen. As a relative novice on foreign policy, she will have plenty of blanks to fill in when the 115th Congress is sworn in on Tuesday.
“If you have national aspirations, as I think she does, getting foreign policy and national security experience is important both substantively and politically,” said Thomas Wright, the director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a natural progression for her. I think it’s sort of unclear exactly what issues she’ll focus on.”
Warren, a former Harvard professor whose three brothers served in the military, has waded into foreign policy issues sparingly during her tenure in Washington. Her only major speech on the topic came in early 2014 at Georgetown University, where she struck an anti-interventionist tone and urged the U.S. to be more considerate of civilian deaths in warfare. She’s traveled abroad only once as a senator, visiting Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan after the 2014 elections. And she barely touched on foreign affairs in her 2014 book, “A Fighting Chance,” focusing on veterans who have fallen prey to financial scams.
Other than that, Warren has generally supported spending cuts in the defense budget, and has advocated on behalf of the defense contractors and military bases in her home state. More recently, Warren has spoken out against Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, but has remained silent on his secretary of Defense nominee, retired Gen. James Mattis.
In a statement announcing her committee appointment, Warren said she would “focus on making sure Congress provides effective support and oversight of the Armed Forces, monitors threats to national security, and ensures the responsible use of military force around the globe.” She added that the defense companies and research labs in Massachusetts play a “critical role” in strengthening national security.
“I think what she will probably do is get into, given her background, things like defense procurement, cost overruns, that type of thing,” said Lawrence Korb, a national security expert who is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
In a recent interview with Boston’s CBS affiliate, Warren said she wants to “make sure that every dollar we spend is a dollar we’re really getting some effective protection out of.”
“One of the issues that’s going to be really important to me in working on Armed Services is about protecting our military and our military families, but also making sure that we are cutting edge,” added Warren, whose predecessors, Scott Brown and Ted Kennedy, also served on the committee. “That’s our comparative advantage here in Massachusetts.”
In addition to defending her state’s interests, it’s unclear at this point whether Warren will take up a pet issue on a national scale. For instance, Kirsten Gillibrand, another potential 2020 presidential contender, has become the leading figure in changing the way the military handles sexual-assault cases.
But with an unpredictable Trump assuming the role of commander-in-chief, Warren may be most effective serving broadly as a check on his administration.
“The question for her is really less on pushing one issue, and it’s more making a significant contribution to the broader debate,” Wright said. “So I think that’s really what her role will probably be, is to be one of the more outspoken Democrats on national security issues in general, particularly given that we’re in for a very volatile period.”
Warren’s allies also hope that she will take on this role, and think she can apply her populist economic views to foreign affairs.
“We need a strong check and balance, and no one is better at ensuring we’re not rigging the game for big international corporations in our foreign policy than Elizabeth Warren,” said Adam Green, the cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which urged Warren to run for president in 2016.
As President Obama and Hillary Clinton take a step back from the political spotlight, Democrats are without a clear leader on foreign policy. Tim Kaine, Chris Murphy, and Gillibrand all serve on either the Armed Services or Foreign Relations committees (or both, in Kaine’s case). Cory Booker will also join the Foreign Relations Committee. Any of these senators, Warren included, could fill that void in the new year.
“There is a little bit of a vacuum, particularly given that the Democrats are leaving and the Republican administration is coming in,” Wright said. “This is a sign that she is stepping up to the plate to fill that vacuum.”
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