Warren Aims to Bolster National Security Credentials

The potential 2020 contender can use her new slot on the Armed Services Committee to patch a hole on her resume.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. gestures as she answers a question during an interview at her office in Boston, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016.
AP Photo/Charles Krupa
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
Jan. 2, 2017, 8 p.m.

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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