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Q&A: Ro Khanna on Yemen, Foreign Policy and Ending Violence at Home and Abroad

September 3, 2019
In The News

Rep. Ro Khanna’s first foray into national politics dates back to his days as a Barack Obama appointee to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Now, the Democratic Silicon Valley congressman is leading the charge to end US involvement in a conflict that began under Obama’s presidency and intensified under Donald Trump’s: the Saudi-backed war in Yemen.

For much of his time in office, Khanna has worked tirelessly on sounding the alarm on US complicity in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The House and Senate have voted several times already to end U.S. support for the war—to no avail.

Now, however, a bipartisan group of 44 lawmakers in both chambers are backing a measure introduced by Khanna to defund American military involvement in Yemen, which could end the bloody four-year conflict.

We caught up with Khanna ahead of landmark negotiations over the provision and before his appearance at a forum titled U.S. Democracy, Congressional Oversight, and Securing the 2020 Election, which is hosted by Stanford political science professor Larry Diamond and takes place from 7:30 to 9pm Tuesday at the Sunnyvale Community Center.

During our conversation, the congressman reflected on his advocacy to end violence at home and abroad, and what motivated him to pursue a career in politics in the first place. Below a transcript of the interview, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Yemen War has been an ongoing conflict since 2015, with Saudi-led forces fighting against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Why should Americans be concerned about a conflict half a world away? 

Human rights. [The war has caused] potentially the greatest famine in the world—14 million people may suffer. My district cares about human rights, and cares about America not being complicit in facilitating a human rights crisis. Trump escalated the war when there was huge brutality. When it started out there wasn’t the brutality of the killing in Hodeidah, Yemen.

But, now he de-escalated it because of our effort of passing the War Powers Resolution with bipartisan support—the first time in the history of the country that a war resolution has ever passed—to stop bombing in Yemen and our refueling of Saudi planes.

We shouldn’t be aiding the Saudis in bombing the Yemenis. We should push the Saudis to lift the blockade for food and medicine to get in. We ought to support Secretary Executive General Carlos Gutierrez in supporting the peace and humanitarian efforts there, putting pressure on the Saudis to stop the bombing and seek regional solutions.

Does the US have a valid foreign policy interest in Yemen? After all, it’s a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Iran has long been an adversary of the United States. 

I don't think we do. And I don't think most people in this district or the country would think we do either. We have a strategic interest in making sure that Al Qaeda doesn't emerge in Yemen and I support our counter-terrorism operations there. But we cannot be getting involved in a proxy dispute between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

We shouldn't be engaged militarily to resolve conflict. Trump has very hawkish advisors like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. Trump’s budget for future wars has increased at least about $100 billion recently. And Trump’s military budget is over $100 billion more than what Obama had.

But that’s not a rational policy that will allow America to win in the global economy where knowledge is the highest commodity.

Ask people in Cupertino, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara: do you think we should be spending money in getting into another war with Iran or do you think we should be building affordable housing in the Bay Area? Do you think we should be building light rail across Dumbarton? Do you think we should be expanding access to California [Highway] 237?

We ought to be focused on the health, education, infrastructure and transportation of our people. It costs $50 billion to stay in Afghanistan for two years and it costs $80 billion a year to pay for free public colleges across this country.

Let’s get out of bad wars. Let’s not increase the military budget.

The shootings in El Paso, Ohio and Gilroy have sparked debates about online violent extremism. Since you represent the tech capital of the world, what role do you think Silicon Valley should play to prevent this?

Tech companies play a big role. They need to remove materials that incites violence or that is clearly hate speech directed at communities—that has no place on these online platforms and they should be diligent in spotting and removing this kind of content.

But the problem isn’t only with Facebook and big tech companies. The problem is sites like 8chan, or sites that aren’t part of big companies. Not only does it need to be removed and regulated, it needs to be addressed with political leadership, a leadership that calls out and exposes such speech, saying that it has no place in America.

That’s where the president has not been strong. He hasn’t explained how this should be defeated and how every American should defeat it. He has given it a passing nod.

Have you always wanted to be a politician? And once you decided to become one, what inspired you to be a Democrat? 

I wanted to be a playwright. I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t think I would run for elected office. I was interested in international law. I thought I may be a commentator, perhaps a writer on public affairs. In high school, I was active in writing op-eds for local papers. When I was a student at the University of Chicago, I worked in Obama’s first campaign as a volunteer with Will Burns, knocking on doors for his [Illinois] state senate race.

My grandfather spent four years in jail during Gandhi's independence movement in the 1940s, fighting for human rights and independence.

His commitment to human rights, my internships both at the White House for Al Gore, working with his chief of staff, and for President Carter at the Carter Center—those experiences shaped my views that Democrats stood for economic equality of opportunity—that the Democrats [stood] for human rights.