Eric Bordenkircher
Eyes on Congress, Progressives and the Middle East

Heroes of Progressivism: Entry #4

Representative Ilhan Omar: Regime-Change Aficionado

Ilhan Omar is the progressive version of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Like Cheney, the Representative of Minnesota’s 5th District supports the disruption and transformation of overseas governing systems while being oblivious or ignoring the fallout. The Deputy Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus only differs from Cheney in terms of the methods, targets, and motivations.

An explicit example of her destabilizing beliefs and desires occurred in March 2021. Following the brutal murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Representative introduced the Mohammed bin Salman Must be Sanctioned Act (MBS MBS Act) to punish the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Omar believed Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) was directly responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. Therefore, the bill called for blocking assets, prohibiting transactions, revoking the Crown Prince’s visa, and preventing the issuing of future visas to the heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia. Under the bill, the de facto ruler and future king of Saudi Arabia, a 78-year ally, would be banned from entering and conducting business in the United States.

The MBS MBS Act would have told Saudi Arabia who could not be their king. Through her bill, Omar sought to interfere in the transition of power of the Saudi monarchy as well as Saudi royal family politics. It was an exceptionally provocative act of transgression considering the Saudi royal family traces its leadership of the country back to the 18th century.

Unlike in previous years—when military force was employed to change government leadership—the Representative resorted to more “progressive” methods. The pressure to change is exacted through non-violent and selective measures—personal punishments and individual-specific sanctions— to achieve a similar outcome. Individual sanctions and punishments are a favorite method of statecraft for progressives because they operate under the dubious proposition that selective punishment and sanctions are an effective way to produce change without inflicting harm on an individual’s state and society.

Despite the difference in methods, the fallout is the same. Always messy, regime change is never confined. The passage and enforcement of Omar’s bill would wreak havoc on the Saudi state, Saudi society, the international economy, U.S.-Saudi relations, and possibly mark the end to the Saud dynasty.

The bill came at a particularly sensitive time for the Saudi royal family. We are witnessing the transfer of power from one generation to another in the family of Ibn Saud. Through designation of Muhammad bin Salman as the Crown Prince, the beginning of a transfer of power from the sons to the grandsons of Ibn Saud was already occurring. It is a particularly vulnerable time since these transitions are opposed by elements from within the family, are not voted upon, and the number of grandsons who could be heirs to the throne is considerable.

External disruption of the transfer of power at this stage also exposes the monarchy (should it survive) to future challenges both domestic and international. It can trigger factionalism in state institutions and throughout society. A Saudi Arabia in turmoil does not bode well for the international economy. The Kingdom is the linchpin of the international economy due to its vast oil reserves.

Ilhan Omar’s bill would have redefined U.S.-Saudi relations for the worse. Its passing into law would have sewn distrust between long-time allies and enrage much of the Saudi public. MBS is very popular, particularly among the younger generations. The Saudis would have been suspicious about American intentions moving forward. And why not? Should Americans have demanded a change in the succession to the throne, anything else would have been possible.

If successful, the bill would have undermined and threatened U.S. national security and interests. Omar either ignored or was oblivious to the consequences of her proposed action. Targeting a close ally’s leadership and stability demonstrated considerable recklessness. Saudi cooperation is multifaceted and critical to the maintenance of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It assists in confronting Iran, provides counter terrorism assistance, and is a prominent participant in any talks leading to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

Considering the immeasurable fallout, why disrupt and damage a state, society, and relationship so profoundly?

Scrutiny of Omar’s MBS MBS act and her words provides insight into some of her progressive motivations.

Firstly, is her exceptional hubris. Omar knows what is best for Saudi and the future of U.S. relations. The Representative exhibits a privileged attitude with little respect for boundaries and sovereignty. She feels entitled as an outsider to step deep into the domestic politics and governance of a country, let alone a U.S. ally of 78 years. It requires remarkable arrogance to disregard a nation’s history and culture (of which she probably has little to no knowledge) and expect profound systemic change—change that suits her vision and beliefs, not U.S. security and economy interest or the beliefs of most living in the Kingdom.

The hubris to intervene in domestic politics and disrespect indigenous processes, especially of an ally, is a reoccurring feature among many of Omar’s colleagues in the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Take, for example, the words of Rep. Jan Schakowsky from Illinois’s 9th District. The Congresswoman interjected into a thoroughly domestic Israeli matter, judicial reform, in 2023. Her words supported the opponents of the reforms.

What purpose does the interventionist statement serve? Why interject in a debate that has no bearing on the United States or the well-being of Schakowsky’s Illinois district? Why do certain American legislators feel compelled to disrespect the processes of Israel and other allies? Like her colleague from Minnesota, Schakowsky seeks to facilitate certain outcomes in foreign country that suit her American beliefs and values, not what many Israelis want. It is quite ironic behavior considering that Schakowsky expressed outrage over possible Russian interference in U.S. processes.

Secondly, is Omar’s contempt for the Kingdom. Her bill is one of several instances of her targeting and commitment to initiatives that undermine the Kingdom or would turn the Saudi state and society on its head. She has demanded equality for Saudi women. She attempted to block arms sales on the basis of human rights abuses. During a hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she demanded accountability for Saudi actions in Yemen. A concerted and constant effort directed at the overhaul of a state and society does not occur without preexisting disdain for it.

For Omar, the Saudi state and society sharply contrasts with her fealty to democratic socialism, radical equality, and rigid secularism. Her statement upon release of the bill indicates her objective extends beyond MBS. “If the United States of America truly supports freedom of expression, democracy and human rights,” she said, “there is no reason not to sanction Mohammed bin Salman….” What does a belief in democracy have to with punishing an individual complicit in a murder? Nothing. Her motivation extends beyond MBS.

Her statement demonstrates a desire to erase the identity of the Kingdom. She is interested in more than cosmetic changes. Does the Representative from Minnesota realize that: 1) Kingdoms are not conducive to democracy, 2) Rights in traditional Muslim societies differ from a progressive notion of rights, and 3) Dissent in monarchies is restricted.

Omar is not alone in her disdain for Saudi Arabia. Her colleague from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Senator Bernie Sanders, called the Kingdom a “despotic dictatorship.”

Lastly, is the role of values in the Congresswoman’s thinking. Omar believes her transgression and contempt are justified because she is righteously upholding progressive values. American foreign policy is not just an instrument for managing state-versus-state relations; it should also be an instrument for foisting progressive values on foreign societies. The Representative envisions that all nation-states should be expected to adhere to specific domestic progressive practices and values whatever their histories and cultures. Their failure to do so warrants criticism and intervention.

A values-laden U.S. foreign policy appears in the bills and words of other progressive politicians in Congress. Representative Priya Jayapal introduced a document in 2022 entitled Foreign Policy for the 21st Century. The Representative from Washington calls for a U.S. foreign policy that is centered on social justice. In other words, Jayapal pursues the projection of progressive values on traditional religious non-Western societies via the U.S. government.

Ilhan Omar demonstrates intolerance to diversity and inclusivity. By advocating for the spread and enforcement of progressive American values and beliefs in foreign societies, Omar seeks uniformity. It is a rather ironic reality considering Omar is a great proponent of diversity, equity, inclusivity in the United States. The contradiction suggests that her tolerance for diversity of other cultures only extends to the visual and audible. Cultural diversity is observed and heard; it should not dictate societal norms and structures unless they conform to progressive standards.

Representative Omar’s MBS MBS act was an attempt to legislate regime change. America’s troubled history with regime change has not deterred the Congresswoman’s thinking. Her determination to disrupt a long-time ally, damage U.S. relations, and undermine U.S. interests because of hubris, contempt and values makes Ilhan Omar a hero of progressivism.

About the Author
Eric Bordenkircher is a Research Fellow at UCLA's Center for Middle East Development (CMED). He is a former Visiting Assistant Professor at Claremont McKenna College and Pepperdine University. He has been affiliated with the Center for Arab and Middle East Studies (CAMES) at the American University of Beirut and Centre d’études pour le monde arabe moderne (CEMAM) at the Université Saint-Joseph. His writing has appeared in Newsweek, National Review, The American Mind, The American Spectator, The National Interest, RealClearWorld, Middle East Policy, The San Diego Union Tribune, The American Conservative, The Jerusalem Post, The Washington Examiner, Review of Middle East Studies, Middle East Quarterly, 1945, Newsmax, and the Fikra Forum. The views represented in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of UCLA or the Center for Middle East Development.
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