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From Council Rock to Congress: Philly-born Ro Khanna is saving U.S. foreign policy from itself | Will Bunch

How a 10th-grade assignment turned a Bucks County teen into the fiercest foreign policy critic on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Rohit "Ro" Khanna, D-Calif. — who grew up in Bucks County —  was lead House sponsor of the recent bill to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen.
Rep. Rohit "Ro" Khanna, D-Calif. — who grew up in Bucks County — was lead House sponsor of the recent bill to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen.Read more

Ro Khanna was your typical Bucks County teen of the early ’90s — die-hard fan of Buddy Ryan’s Eagles, watching Mike Schmidt close out his career from the 700 Level of the Vet, playing Little League ball in Holland — when an assignment from a 9th-grade teacher at then-Holland Junior High changed his trajectory.

Asked to write a newspaper op-ed about 1991′s brewing war with Iraq over Kuwait, the self-described Philly “Bicentennial baby” (born Sept. 13, 1976) recalls that he dug deeper, beyond even the story of his parents emigrating from India’s Punjab region to America. He went back to the idealism of his maternal grandfather Amarnath Vidyalankar, a leader of India’s independence movement and ally of Mahatma Gandhi who was jailed by the British in the 1940s.

But the 14-year-old Khanna’s position was also nuanced. Iraq’s 1990 invasion of next-door neighbor Kuwait should be undone, he wrote, but he worried that then-President George H.W. Bush would shun economic sanctions in favor of a speedy war — mainly to lower the price of oil.

“This is a war that will be brought on because of a materialistic society that evaluates only the economic aspect,” Khanna wrote, adding later: “Every soldier’s life has a priceless monetary value...We must have no doubts before engaging in war.” He’d aced the assignment. Then-Bucks County Courier-Times columnist Joe Halberstein ran excerpts under the headline “Read this 14-year-old’s lips, George,” and the Inquirer ran snippets a couple of weeks later.

The 41st president probably didn’t actually read Khanna’s op-ed — although the teen fantasized about that — but from that moment the future Council Rock High School grad was in a new orbit. It took him to University of Chicago, Yale Law School, and finally California’s Silicon Valley (with a detour to a mid-level post in the Obama administration), where in 2016 — on his fourth try — the political progressive ousted a Democratic incumbent to become a U.S. congressman.

In his two-plus years on Capitol Hill, Khanna has emerged as the leader in a battle to re-invent U.S. military and foreign policy. He’s essentially trying to make the idealistic prose of his junior high op-ed come true — by trying to end America’s tangle of overseas wars and to spark a future of better moral decisions about where to fight and when to risk human lives.

Khanna was chief sponsor of the bill to end U.S. support for the war that’s causing a humanitarian crisis in Yemen — the first time has Congress ever passed a War Powers Act resolution to end a conflict, although President Trump vetoed it. And Khanna wants to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Syria and finally put the kibosh on the so-called “Forever War” that grew out of 2001′s terror attacks and has American troops and drones all over the globe. He wants Congress to take back the authority for war it’s yielded to the White House.

“My hope on foreign policy is that we live up to the promise of our Founders,” Khanna told me this week by phone in the middle of a busy week in the Capitol. He credits growing up in the shadows of historic Philadelphia — and his frequent school field trips to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall — with his later passion for reading the Founding Fathers like John Adams and his wariness of foreign military entanglements.

Representative Khanna, now 42, often seems at the center of a swirl of contradictions. His 17th Congressional District in Northern California is home to the headquarters of Apple and Google and some of the world’s richest people, including those like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg who supported his earlier campaigns. But Khanna fights for progressive causes like curbing income inequality (and for the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, which he co-chairs), has sponsored an internet privacy bill, and is pressuring the tech giants in his district to add jobs — not at home but in depressed areas of the Rust Belt or Appalachia.

Khanna learned a lot about bridging different worlds from his immigrant parents — his dad a retired Rohm & Haas chemical engineer, his mom a former substitute teacher. When the family moved from Bensalem to Amsterdam Avenue in Holland, their new neighbors worried the Hindu family wouldn’t honor the block’s tradition of festive Christmas lights. Khanna recalls his dad saying, “That’s silly — of course we’ll have Christmas lights and participate. That doesn’t diminish our faith.”

The California congressman told me that he also thinks about his Bucks County childhood and the polyglot crowds at his Little League games when he ponders the inequality and economic segregation that’s so common today in areas like Silicon Valley. “When we were kids, there was a plumber down the street and an air conditioning maintenance guy and a nurse and a teacher and a more senior executive...There was all economic backgrounds, and they interacted.”

Nearly 30 years later, he still stays in touch with the 9th-grade English teacher, Gretchen Raab, who saw a kid who was something of a math whiz and helped him discover a hidden passion for writing and the world of ideas. “He was a rare bird,” Raab, who retired from Council Rock in 2002 and moved to Arizona, said by phone. “He has very progressive ideas — but he expresses them in ways that people who are not as progressive can hear them.”

Indeed, Khanna loves to talk about growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs — watching the Phils’ Von Hayes with the free tickets they gave away for good grades, or running into the late Czech leader Václav Havel on a Philadelphia street after he was awarded the Liberty Medal. The Philly years rarely come up, after all, on his newer turf in Silicon Valley, or in his increasingly high-profile mission of trying to turn around the battleship of American militarism.

He insists that — despite the lack of votes to overturn Trump’s veto on America’s Yemen involvement — the effort that he and his ally Sanders have led on Capitol Hill has yielded positive results, such as the end of U.S. refueling of Saudi Arabian bombing runs. The conflict on the Arabian Peninsula — with the U.S. offering weapons, intelligence and other aid to Saudis waging war on Yemeni rebels — has killed tens of thousands, and the United Nations warns that Yemen’s on the brink of the world’s worst famine in a century if the war does not end soon.

“Even this administration can’t turn a blind eye as famine continues to mount,” Khanna insisted, although so far the Trump administration has seemed in complete thrall to the Saudis and their young authoritarian ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. With Yemen in limbo, Khanna has turned a focus to his work with the campaign of Sanders, who is placing a much greater emphasis on foreign affairs now than during his 2016 White House bid. Khanna said a Sanders administration would cut back U.S. fighting abroad and spend the proceeds at home rebuilding the middle class.

Khanna noted his new friend, the ex-president Jimmy Carter, recently observed that China hasn’t fought a war since 1979 and has instead spent countless billions building up its infrastructure while the U.S. has been enmeshed in multiple conflicts. “What,” Khanna asked, “if we had put these these trillions into making college tuition free, into high speed trains from Philadelphia to New York or D,C., or into broadband so the rural parts of Pennsylvania could have high-speed access like my parents do in Northampton Township?”

Indeed, when Trump announced last year he was pulling American troops from Syria, with an inclination to do the same in Afghanistan, the progressive Sanders-ite Khanna took the unusual step of supporting the move, although he had some issues with the way the president was handling the withdrawal. Trump later backed down at the urging of his generals, but that hasn’t stopped Khanna from hoping that Congress will regain some of the control over when the nation does or doesn’t go to war — what the Founders had envisioned.

“I believe the opportunity for our generation is to see a fulfillment of America’s founding promise, which is can you have a nation which is conceived on a philosophic idea of equality and liberty, not a nation that’s tied together by blood,” Khanna said, “And the American scriptures are the Constitution, and the American places of worship are Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell,” he added, channeling his high-school field trip.

Khanna’s been mentioned as a possible Cabinet member in a Sanders administration — maybe even Defense Secretary — but he didn’t want to talk about any other office beyond Congress. His ex-teacher Raab isn’t so shy. “I always said to him in 9th grade,” she told me, “that he was going to be the first Indian-American president.”