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Ilhan Omar on Ending War, Global Refugees, Russia Sanctions & Why More Saudi Oil Is Not the Answer

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As the U.S. considers a ban on importing Russian oil as part of sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine, senior advisers to President Biden are reportedly planning to visit Saudi Arabia to secure more oil to make up the shortfall. We speak to Minnesota Congressmember Ilhan Omar about Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen, which has caused the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. “If our issue is that we don’t want to buy oil from a powerful country that is conducting a devastating war on its weaker neighbor, I just don’t see Saudi Arabia hardly being a principled solution,” says Omar. She also discusses the need to institute policies so all refugees of war can be treated with the same level of hospitality as Ukrainians, the need to ban members of Congress from trading stocks and more.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue to look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on this International Women’s Day.

Earlier today, the United Nations said more than 2 million refugees have fled Ukraine in the largest exodus in Europe since World War II. We’re joined now by Congressmember Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who knows something about being a refugee. Her family came to the U.S. as Somali refugees. She’s the first African refugee to become a U.S. congressmember.

Earlier this week, she criticized reports that senior advisers to President Biden may be planning a visit Saudi Arabia to discuss global oil supplies as the U.S. considers a ban on importing Russian oil. Congressmember Omar tweeted, quote, “Our response to Putin’s immoral war shouldn’t be to strengthen our relationship with the Saudis who are currently causing the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet in Yemen. Yemenis might not matter to some geopolitically but their humanity should. This is a wildly immoral act,” Congressmember Ilhan Omar tweeted. Well, she’s joining us now back on Democracy Now!

Congressmember Omar, welcome to Democracy Now! on this International Women’s Day.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Good to be with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you start off with that tweet, with that comment that you made about now the U.S.’s search for more oil as it cuts off the taking oil from Russia? Can you talk about, first, the plan to go to Saudi Arabia?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Well, it’s good to be with you, Amy, and good morning to everyone.

It’s hard to see a principle at play here. If our issue is that we don’t want to buy oil from a powerful country that is conducting a devastating war on its weaker neighbor, I just don’t see Saudi Arabia hardly being a principled solution. We know that MBS is obviously going to try to take advantage of this opportunity to once again whitewash his reputation and present himself as a reformer, and we shouldn’t fall for that. The truth is, our dependency on oil means that we depend on tyrants, and that has always been true. So, if we are, obviously, serious about what we need to do in regards to the Ukraine context, we should be supporting and defending democracy and human rights, and we should certainly move away — then we should certainly move away from our dependency on fossil fuels and not be cozying up once again to another tyrant.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Congresswoman, I wanted to ask you — the U.S. has provided enormous military support to Ukraine, sending 17,000 anti-tank weapons just in the last six days, and billions more President Biden is requesting in military aid. And interestingly, while the rest of the stock market has been plummeting in the United States, the stocks of defense contractors have soared. General Dynamics, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin all have the highest stock prices they have had in 30 years, because they’re obviously building these Javelins and these other missiles that the United States is buying. What’s the debate like in Congress right now about the degree of aid that the United States should be supplying?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Well, it’s interesting you bring up the soaring stock market for those that profit from war and the conflict of interest that we are obviously experiencing here in Congress, because we have colleagues that are actually currently buying those specific stocks because they understand that war can be profitable for them and for everyone, which is unfortunate.

It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening in Ukraine. We obviously want to help the Ukrainians defend themselves, but I have cautioned my colleagues on what, you know, could be the catastrophe that awaits us if we continue to send billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine instead of really thinking about what kind of weapons we’re sending. You know, if we continue to give small arms and ammunition, those can ultimately get in the hands of the wrong people and can have a lasting effect. We have to be able to learn something from history. We did this in Afghanistan when Afghanistan was fighting against the Soviet, and we ultimately saw what happened with the resources that we gave, the support that we gave in that country, and who we ultimately ended up propping up. And so, I do hope that my colleagues, obviously, learn from history and that we respond in a measured way.

AMY GOODMAN: Just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene bought up to $15,000 in stock in the military contractor Lockheed Martin. Congressmember Omar, you tweeted in response, “Add this to the list of why members of Congress should never be allowed to trade stocks.” Can you comment further?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Of course. I mean, we’ve seen the kind of conflict of interest this presents. Members of Congress have information that could attribute to inside trading, and ultimately, if they are not breaking the law, they are still having a conflict of interest. And we should be in the business of having a clear conscience when we are making these decisions as policymakers on behalf of our country. Congressional members should never be allowed to trade stock. Their family members and their dependents shouldn’t, as well. I think it is time for us to ban stock trading for members of Congress, because, you know, the evidence is there: Not only did we see people profiting from the pandemic, we are now seeing them profit from war.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Congresswoman, I’d like to ask you — Ukraine has been urging the United States and NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. President Biden and the Europeans have said that they do not want to do that, because they don’t want to expand the conflict further. But the media also have been — a lot of the corporate media have been almost pressuring the administration to do so. What’s your sense of this issue of the no-fly zone and where members of Congress stand on it?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: So, when the Ukrainians ask us to implement a no-fly zone, that’s an invitation for us to get involved in the war. A no-fly zone is not something that, you know, is just implemented. It’s something that has to be militarily defended. And that ultimately means the United States and our NATO allies will be a part and parcel to this war. And when we get involved in this war, it’s not that less Ukrainians are going to die. More Ukrainians are going to die. And we have to be able to have an honest conversation about what an escalation in this war could ultimately mean, not just for Ukrainians but for the rest of the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the sanctions that have already been imposed, you’ve expressed some concerns about some of the sanctions. Could you talk about that, as well?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah, I mean, we are sanction-happy as a nation. And, you know, ultimately, it is important for us to support some sanctions on Putin and his allies to make sure that they feel the pain and the consequences of their actions. But what I do want the American people and everyone around the world to understand is that as we urge, you know, Russians who are antiwar, that these sanctions that we are cheering for and implementing will ultimately have an impact on the very people that we want to rise up and make sure that they are speaking against this illegal, immoral and unjust war on a sovereign country.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about another tweet. Just one week ago, President Biden gave his State of Union address. You recently tweeted, “Thank you @POTUS. I was proud to sign a letter in support of TPS for Ukrainians. I have also signed letters asking for TPS for Cameroonians and Ethiopians. Those deserve the same urgency.” Can you talk about the way the media covers Ukraine versus other absolute crises in the world? Some have noted that when you’re talking about white Christians who are victims, not only Christians but others in Ukraine, you have a much more sense of urgency than, for example, what’s happening in the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the world, which is in Yemen, not to mention what’s happening with refugees from other countries. If you could comment?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah, I mean, it’s heartwarming to see the incredible support from European countries, the United States and everyone around the world that the Ukrainians are experiencing — right? — as they flee war. Everyone fleeing war deserves this level of compassion and hospitality. Some of the countries that are welcoming Ukraine now are the same countries that have been stoking fear against refugees who were fleeing the Syrian war, the war in Libya and many other wars around the world. And it is a fact that, you know, many of the Syrian refugees were also fleeing Putin’s brutality as he’s helped Assad’s regime wage devastation on his people. We also know that there are more than 2 million people that are being displaced in Ethiopia as we speak right now. There are people from Haiti, Central America, to Bangladesh, to Afghanistan, and so many other places that are being displaced. And there are more people that are considered refugees and immigrants in the world right now than at any point in our — you know, in world history. And so, we know that it’s going to get worse as climate change gets worse. And I hope that we seize this moment to really start enacting policies that treat all people who are fleeing war and devastation the same way that we are treating Ukrainians at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: I also want to ask you about your home country, about Somalia. In February, U.S. Africa Command in Somalia conducted an airstrike that was reportedly in response to an al-Shabab attack on partner forces. Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on the 2001 AUMF and war powers, and you asked the general counsel of the Pentagon, Caroline Krass, about Somalia. This is a clip.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Bring our attention to Somalia. Am I correct that all of the airstrikes conducted there under President Biden had been justified under the doctrine of collective self-defense?

CAROLINE KRASS: Congresswoman, the strikes in Somalia have been conducted under the authority of the 2001 AUMF, and I know that at least some have been in defense of partner forces.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Mm-hmm, including the February 22nd strike?


AMY GOODMAN: So, that strike got very little attention in the U.S. media. It was the first U.S. bombing of Somalia since August. Can you talk about its significance and what you’re most concerned about, Congressmember Omar? This is your home country, where you fled from.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah, I mean, my concerns are deeply rooted in these military activities that we continue to engage in that, you know, really are flying under the radar. Most Americans aren’t aware of our military activities around the world, let alone countries like Somalia. And it’s really important that, you know, we shed light on how the AUMF, the 2001 AUMF, has been utilized, and it’s currently in effect in more than 20 countries. Many of the members of Congress then who voted to authorize that authorized it for our work in Afghanistan. And it is time for us to examine it and repeal it. I think, you know, if we are going to continue to engage in war in countries like Somalia, we need new authorization and reasoning for the activities that are taking place and, you know, military actions that are being committed with U.S. tax dollars and in our name.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of those military actions, the Trump administration removed several hundred U.S. soldiers that were functioning supposedly as advisers in Somalia, but there’s talk about bringing them back under the — or at least some of them, under the Biden administration. What’s your feeling about this issue of so many American soldiers being stationed in several of these countries under the war on terrorism?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah, again, you know, we definitely need to reexamine and have a deeper conversation. I think members of Congress in previous years have not done their oversight duties in trying to go after and investigate some of these actions that have been taken. It’s important for us to also realize that we don’t just have the known, you know, military posts that people often talk about, but there are military actions that are taking place in countries like Somalia, where we talk about being an advisory but we are literally engaged in activities of war. You know, Somalia is obviously challenged by terrorism. Al-Shabab is, you know, a terrorist organization. They are causing havoc to lives of citizens in Somalia. Many of the people that are being displaced in Somalia right now are not being displaced because of the civil war that displaced my family when I was a child.

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: They’re being displaced because of terrorism and because of climate change. And so —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there —

REP. ILHAN OMAR: — these are things that we have to address, but we need — 

AMY GOODMAN: — Minnesota Congressmember Ilhan Omar. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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