‘Our foreign policy has typically been a white supremacist foreign policy’: Meet the BDS proponent hoping to unseat a longtime Democratic congressman in Oregon

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Earl Blumenauer has represented Oregon’s 3rd congressional district since 1996, but he’ll face two primary challengers in 2020. Charles Rand Barnett, who ran against Blumenauer in 2018, and Albert Lee. Lee is the dean of Portland Community College’s Business and Computing division and running on a progressive platform that includes support for the Green New Deal and Medicare For All. Unlike many Democrats, he also advocates for a progressive foreign policy that aims to challenge the Washington consensus on U.S. hegemony. Lee spoke with Mondoweiss on BDS, the occupation of Palestine, and whether his campaign is pushing Blumenauer to the left on these issues.

Mondoweiss: There’s been much discussion and debate among progressives over the last few years regarding which Democratic lawmakers to primary. What led you to believe your district was in need of change?

Lee: Well, first of all I believe that democracy requires choice and we simply haven’t had choice here for at least a generation. We have an incumbent that’s been in office for twenty-three years in a heavily Democratic district, I believe we’re +24 on a Cook Partisan Voting Index, which means effectively that no Republican or Third Party challenger will ever have a shot at providing choice for the people. Which means that you really need primary challengers in order to provide choice and with that choice comes accountability for our elected officials.

Now our current Representative Earl Blumenauer has a pretty decent vote for the most part but he typically comes late to the game when it comes to a lot of different issues. Case in point, he voted for and was a proponent of the Defense of Marriage Act [the federal law that defined marraige as the union of a man and a woman, and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages], now of course he’s an LGBTQ champion. In the past he’s been against Medicare For All, now he has moved forward to sign on to the Medicare For All resolutions. Same thing with climate change. I believe that in order to ensure that our representatives are working for us and not for corporations you’ve got to have a choice, you’ve got to have a legitimate challenger, so I’m trying to bring that legitimate challenge and I’m trying to make sure that we maintain a progressive district and one that will actually move further to the left, actually do more work for the people.

The progressive Jewish group IfNotNow has been confronting Democratic candidates on the campaign trail and asking them about the occupation of Palestine and if they’d pressure Israel to stop it. How would you answer that question as a potential member of congress?

First of all, I think the occupation is illegal. I think we have a series of international laws that are being violated going back to 1948. There was supposed to be a two-state solution and since that time we’ve had an erosion, we’ve had a promotion of one-state over the other, and the rights of one set of folks over the other. I am a proponent when it comes to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) when it comes to the state of Israel. In fact, I believe that our current Representative has now moved to the left on that as well. While not being a proponent of BDS, he was one of the 16 Democratic votes against H.Res. 246, with the caveat that he is not a BDS supporter.

That actually leads right into my next question. There’s been a growing debate about BDS in recent months as a result of this anti-BDS resolution that was passed overwhelmingly in the House and the bill that Rep. Ilhan Omar has introduced that affirms Americans’ right to boycott. You just stated what your position on BDS is, but what do you think of this legislation we’re seeing targeting BDS at a state and federal level?

I think you’re referring to the House Resolution 246 when it comes to criminalizing BDS. I think that’s clearly unconstitutional. It goes against a lot of different issues including First Amendment, free speech issues. I’m a proponent of Omar’s House Resolution 496. Long story short, BDS is just one of the various tools that we have in the way of international law. Because when you’re talking about international law you’re talking about the law between sovereigns. Right? So one sovereign can’t tell another sovereign what to do. And really the only way that you can effect change is by persuasion. And one of the tools of persuasion is to use these types of things like [BDS] in order to encourage them to do the right thing because you cannot force a sovereign to do the right thing.

I feel like many of our readers probably believe Rep. Blumenauer has been really good on these issues, especially compared to the rest of Washington. He was one of just 16 Dems to vote against the anti-BDS resolution, he’s a cosponsor of Omar’s boycott bill, and he’s also a cosponsor of the Betty McCollum bill that would prohibit funding for the detention of Palestinian children. What do you think about his record on the issue of Israel/Palestine and do you think local pressure from the left has influenced these moves?

Yes. Well again I think that typically our current representative is late to the game and most issues. I think quite frankly that my entering into this race as a legitimate challenger has shifted him to the left on a lot of issues. Yes, we have a loud and vocal variety of groups here that continually add pressure to the representative and that’s one of the things that I find really sad. I find that oftentimes we have so many different groups that come to petition our elected leader and it shouldn’t be that way. Our elected leader should be listening to the people and and taking note and following their guidance because you know it’s supposed to be our representative and not a ruler. Now when it comes to some those recent moves, yes he’s moved further to the left. And again I think that’s been a combination of the fact that I’m in the race. And then secondly the added concerted efforts of many different groups here.

If elected to congress what would your foreign policy priorities be beyond the subjects we’ve already discussed? 

I’ll tell you flatly that our foreign policy has typically been a white supremacist foreign policy, one that has been focused on providing benefit to a select few with death and destruction to a lot of folks. I’ll give you a quick example. Recently we talk about Guatemalans on the southern border trying to get in for asylum. You can trace that whole issue back to the 1930s and 40s with United Fruit and they’re petitioning of our government to come and take care of their labor issues down in Guatemala which led to the destablization of a democratically elected government. The installation of right-wing fascist governments that carried on into the late 1990s which led to a civil war which led to continued destabilization of that country. And then you add on the fact that we’ve exported M.S. 13 down to Guatemala. And you have people who live in a country that’s been destabilized and are seeking some sort of respite, some sort of solution to that and that’s why you can find folks on the southern border from that country. 

Likewise you can look at our foreign policy when it comes to, say, Yemen. Yemen is a civil war which is effectively a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran which is in turn a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia. You know we’ve got to stop meddling in other folks situations, we’ve got to stop doing things that are going to benefit a select few people so that they can profit on the casualties of war.

Congress is supposed to be the leader when it comes to war. We’re supposed to be the ones who make that decision. But for far too long we’ve abdicated and we’ve given that decision over to the president. With the authorized use of military force and then it being reinstated again, that is an abdication of the powers of Congress. We should reassert our discretion over those affairs. And quite frankly we should take a deeper look at the series of unintended consequences that can happen with any action that is taken.

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I think we have a series of international laws that are being violated going back to 1948. There was supposed to be a two-state solution That is a misconception. In reality the UNGA merely recommend partition, neither that nor anything else made a two state solution international law. As for international law, there was a proposal to take the matter before the International Court of Justice to determine among other things: Whether the United Nations,… Read more »

“I’ll tell you flatly that our foreign policy has typically been a white supremacist foreign policy, one that has been focused on providing benefit to a select few with death and destruction to a lot of folks. ” Has Europe or the U.S. taken the trouble to try to dominate the global economy just in order to fulfill “white supremacist” values? Would global domination be OK if it just weren’t racist? Or has that supremacism… Read more »

‘Our foreign policy has typically been a white supremacist foreign policy’. I suppose the U.S. being at war in the Middle East and elsewhere, the entire eight years that Obama was President, would not count in Mr. Lee’s equation; despite Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. And there is that well documented Obama support for ISIS, while running a drone execution campaign on same. Almost all of the Neoconservatives who’ve been running U.S. foreign policy… Read more »

House Resolution 246 does not criminalize BDS. I would suggest taking out two minutes of precious time in order to read the resolution. The House of Representatives “opposes the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS Movement) targeting Israel…” Opposing the BDS movement does not mean that the House means to prosecute you and to give you a criminal record. I would imagine that the editors of Mondoweiss understand that the claim of criminalization was… Read more »

Keith: “And while racism informs our foreign and domestic policy, it is not the driving force any more than patriarchy or religious intolerance. Big topics somewhat difficult to discuss in the Mondoweiss comments section.” Insofar as these topics cannot be seriously discussed in the MW comments section, there will also be a lack of pragmatic political action regarding Israel/Palestine. That would entail focusing, as you persistently do, on USFP which underlies the rational support of… Read more »