2020 election

What Is Tulsi Gabbard Fighting For?

Gabbard. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Getty Images

Tulsi Gabbard, a popular Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii, is a rising star on the left. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012 and is both the first American Samoan and the first Hindu elected to the U.S. House. Her young career in U.S. politics has already catapulted the Iraq War veteran to national fame — she became one of the most polarizing, and popular, figures in the progressive movement when she broke with the Democratic Party Establishment and endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. “Congresswoman Gabbard is one of the important voices of a new generation of leaders,” Sanders said in response to the endorsement. “As a veteran of the Iraq War she understands the cost of war and is fighting to create a foreign policy that not only protects America but keeps us out of perpetual wars that we should not be in.”

In the two years since that endorsement, Gabbard has become a vehicle for the hopes of those who see a potential Gabbard 2020 candidacy (she’s working on a book to be published next year and addressed grassroots organizers in New Hampshire in September) as a way to continue Sanders’s “political revolution.” (Multiple requests for comment to both Sanders’s and Gabbards’s offices went unanswered.) Gabbard has touted her foreign policy credentials as a strength: her campaign website boasts that the Hawaiian congresswoman “has more foreign affairs experience and understanding than most others who are twice her age.” And she’s used her position to push for legislative change on U.S. foreign policy. Her Stop Arming Terrorism Act would severely curtail U.S. interventionist policies by preventing the U.S. government from funding armed groups that are fronts for known terror organizations.

But ironically, while it was Gabbard’s anti-war bona fides that were both the motivation for her initial run for Congress and the impetus for her rising profile, it is her foreign-policy views that are raising questions on the left.

In her public rhetoric, Gabbard rejects much of U.S. intervention across the world. As a Democrat, that anti-interventionism puts Gabbard to the left of her party’s Establishment. She’s been critical of former President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy positions and priorities, and, again, her Stop Arming Terrorism Act, which was introduced in the Senate by Senator Rand Paul, would severely curtail U.S. interventionist policies by stopping American funding of armed groups that are fronts for known terror organizations, specifically Al Qaeda in Syria.

But a steady drumbeat of criticism from progressives claims that Gabbard also has sympathies with Steve Bannon–style nationalists on the hard right, whose foreign-policy view is also fundamentally anti-interventionist. Her detractors argue that her policy overlap with the hard right is consistent and substantive enough that it ought to undermine her credibility as someone who could represent consensus progressive values in the White House.

If “Gabbardism” is a foreign-policy school of thought, it is perhaps best captured by her own words. “In short, when it comes to the war against terrorists, I’m a hawk,” Gabbard told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in 2016. “When it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I’m a dove.” It’s a sentiment that wouldn’t be out of place in Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign — or in Pat Buchanan’s in 1992.

In Gabbard’s own telling, her non-interventionist views are the result of her seeing the cost paid by American soldiers while deployed in Iraq — the cost paid by the Iraqis themselves goes unmentioned. And according to her critics, Islamophobia underlies her hawkishness. Gabbard’s idiosyncratic foreign policy is an uneasy fit next to her orthodox economic populism, and suggests a deeper question: what are progressives’ foreign-policy priorities in the first place? America is still fighting the borderless and interminable War on Terror, launching surgical strikes and drone attacks in countries around the world with impunity — in such an environment, is it enough to be just against wars of regime change?

Gabbard said last year that one of the the reasons she came to Congress was to oppose such wars. As early as 2015, for example, Gabbard’s views on the Syrian conflict — she stated the U.S. should reverse then–President Barack Obama’s policy of financially backing and providing limited tactical support to the anti-government rebels in the country — represented a departure from her party. A visit to Syria in 2017 to visit the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, earned Gabbard headlines around the world as the congresswoman attempted to keep America from getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war.

The combination of her anti-interventionist stance with her progressive domestic record has earned her support in some corners of the left, particularly the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

“She’s a terrific package,” said Our Revolution Labor Chair Larry Cohen. Whether it’s health care for all, financial regulation, or workers’ rights, Cohen said he believes that Gabbard is on the right side of the issues — including foreign policy. “She’s clear on non-intervention — what’s wrong with U.S. foreign policy since World War II.”

But supporters attracted by Gabbard’s old-left anti-interventionism are likely to be less enamored with her stances on anti-terrorism measures. A 2015 vote on a bill that would subject Iraqi and Syrian refugees to the predecessor of Trump’s “extreme vetting” won Gabbard friends in Republican circles. The bill — which did not pass the Senate — required every refugee admitted to the country to receive individual vetting that, according to Representative John Conyers at the time, “would effectively deny refugee status for Syrians and Iraqis who are victims of terrorism in their own homelands.”

“It’s important for anyone who really cares about keeping our refugee programs open to seriously consider the negative impact to such programs if a terrorist attack occurred and a refugee were involved,” said Gabbard in a statement after the vote. She said this as progressive groups were, for the most part, lobbying the Obama (and then Trump) administrations to accept larger numbers of Syrian refugees.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, spoke highly of Gabbard during the 2016 election. A source from the transition team told the Hill that Bannon loved Gabbard and wanted to work with her “on everything.” That praise precipitated a meeting with the then-incoming president and his team at Trump Tower shortly after the election, at which time it was rumored that Gabbard was in the running for secretary of State.

“She would fit perfectly too [inside the administration],” the source told the Hill. “She gets the foreign policy stuff, the Islamic terrorism stuff.”

Gabbard wasn’t appointed to the position — that dubious honor went to Rex Tillerson — but she remains in the Trump orbit: Trump 2020 Advisory Board member Tony Shaffer met with the congresswoman in her office this April.

The Hawaiian congresswoman’s visit to Syria in January 2017, her meeting with Assad, and her perspective on the conflict has earned her criticism from her political adversaries in the Democratic Party — particularly Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden. Tanden’s critiques only increased after Gabbard expressed skepticism over claims that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was responsible for a sarin gas attack in April 2017. In a statement, Tanden downplayed her disagreements with Gabbard, which she said were personal and did not reflect the views of CAP.

“I’m personally concerned about her support for Russian military action in Syria while excusing Assad’s murderous regime,” Tanden wrote. “But she has positions on other issues that are admirable, like campaign finance reform.”

The Democratic Socialists of America, an organization which has seen its membership rapidly expand in the wake of Sanders’s campaign, have concerns about Gabbard’s record that illustrate the tension on the left about her foreign-policy views.

“We support Rep. Gabbard on many issues, including some on which she has moved left, and of course there’s how she took a stand to support Bernie,” said Maria Svart, the DSA’s national director. Svart, though, is not sure Gabbard is sufficiently anti-interventionist. “She falls short on some issues compared to what we’d expect from a democratic socialist, particularly around supporting U.S. intervention abroad and the Hindu nationalist policies of Modi in India.”

Gabbard has been close to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his right wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, a party known for its ethnocentric views and its anti-Muslim sentiment. Modi is a Hindu nationalist whose rise was fueled by exclusionary appeals to religious identity. Modi was the governor of Gujarat, a state in the west of India, when riots killed over 2,000 Muslims in 2002. Gabbard, who is Hindu but not of an Indian background, visited India at Modi’s invitation in 2014 and was a guest of honor of the extremist Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on the trip — one contemporary report referred to her as the group’s “newest mascot.” She’s also kept in close contact with members of the BJP, meeting with BJP politician Shivraj Singh Chouhan during Chouhan’s October visit to the U.S.

In a moment when progressives are increasingly in need of a coherent foreign policy, someone like Gabbard is very threatening, Syrian American activist Ramah Kudaimi told New York in an email. “There used to be a time,” Kudaimi said, “when politicians proclaiming we should be backing brutal regimes in order to fight terrorism were condemned by progressives; now progressives embrace them and call them heroic.”

To the extent that there is a coherent foreign policy orthodoxy on the left, Gabbard departs from it. Whether Democrats will overlook that in 2020 is another question.

What Is Tulsi Gabbard Fighting For?