Who’s afraid of Tulsi Gabbard?

Although her calm, plainspoken style had already won her something of a following, especially among her fellow lawmakers, she first became really visible to U.S. progressives nationwide in late February of 2016.

Image Credit: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

In anticipation of the 2020 presidential race, 9 candidates have already announced they are running for the Democratic nomination. Although Bernie Sanders has yet to officially declare his candidacy, if he does as expected, he will have more competition than in the last go around from actual progressives, including two already in the running, Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard.

Gabbard came into the U.S. Congress in 2012 after primarying the Democratic incumbent in Hawaii’s 2nd and easily winning election in the reliably Democratic district. Although her calm, plainspoken style had already won her something of a following, especially among her fellow lawmakers, she first became really visible to U.S. progressives nationwide in late February of 2016. The Congresswoman did this by resigning her post as one of 5 Vice Chairs on the Democratic National Committee to give Senator Sanders her endorsement after her call for more debates went unheeded.

In the fall of that year it was revealed by Wikileaks’ release of the Podesta emails that what came across as a principled stance, cheered by the Democratic left, had made Gabbard enemies among donors and the centrist, Clinton wing of the party.

An email to Gabbard with the subject line, “Disappointed”, sent by Darnell Strom and Michael Kives, two Hollywood agents and donors, the former having also worked on and off with former President Bill Clinton since at least 2005, was forwarded to Podesta and later published by Wikileaks as part of the trove.

“For you to endorse a man [Sanders] who has spent almost 40 years in public office with very few accomplishments, doesn’t fall in line with what we previously thought of you. Hillary Clinton will be our party’s nominee and you standing on ceremony to support the sinking Bernie Sanders ship is disrespectful to Hillary Clinton,” Strom and Kives wrote, ironically somewhat disrespectfully.

While any candidate in the 2020 race should be scrutinized for past statements and beliefs, Gabbard, 37, is already facing more than most from the Democratic establishment and its media allies, not only for her actions in 2016 but also her clear anti-interventionist stance over the past few years, something which puts her far outside of the Democratic mainstream, at least as it’s currently constituted.

Some of the criticism is easily dismissed, such as those who call the Congresswoman, who traveled to Syria in 2017 and met with President Assad and other government officials, an ‘Assad apologist’. Gabbard continues to be taken to task for the trip, with Former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill calling her the Syrian President’s ‘bestie’ shortly after she announced her candidacy this month.

Interviewed on CNN after she returned from the war torn country, the Congresswoman explained why she chose to meet with Assad, “When the opportunity arose to meet with him, I did so, because I felt it’s important that if we profess to truly care about the Syrian people, about their suffering, then we’ve got to be able to meet with anyone that we need to if there is a possibility that we could achieve peace. And that’s exactly what we talked about.”

Gabbard, a veteran who served in Iraq and Kuwait, hasn’t only showed concern for victims of the multi-sided brutality in Syria but has been tirelessly calling for an end to U.S. support for the Saudi led intervention in Yemen in the U.S. Congress. She is also one of the few, along with newly elected Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and Senator Sanders, to object to the current saber rattling coming out of Washington in regards to long suffering Venezuela.

More troubling in regards to Syria (and Iraq), Gabbard backed a bill in late 2015 to stop 10,000 refugees from these countries from settling in the United States and in that time period insisted that then President Obama should use the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, then a favorite rightwing talking point that maligns an entire religion by association.

On her campaign website, on a page titled Islam/Islamophobia, it seems Gabbard has stopped using some of the harsh rhetoric she has used in the past.

There is for example, a more recent quote targeting President Trump for trying to “conflate terrorism with Islam,” “Donald Trump is clearly trying to, unfortunately, capitalize on people’s fears for his own political gain…It’s important for all of us, for leaders in our country, for people in the media, to make a clear distinction from two things. One is the spiritual practice of Islam, the spiritual and religious path that most Muslims follow; and the other is the political Islam or Islamism that’s really a totalitarian Islamic supremacy ideology that is fueling these attacks. That’s fueled the San Bernardino shooters, that’s fueling ISIS, fueling al Qaeda and these Islamic extremist terror groups that are creating such a threat. And that’s why it’s so important for us to create this distinction to make sure that we know who our enemy is. The ideology that is our enemy, the radical Islamist ideology and not continue to play on fears of people, as Donald Trump is doing.”

While her understanding of Islamism is still somewhat extreme in that it doesn’t allow for more moderate, if still reactionary, forms of this ideology found on the far right in many countries as opposed to the Salafism of groups like ISIS that she seems to be referring to, it’s at least more nuanced than some of her earlier statements. Having converted to Hinduism in her teens and been championed and financially supported by the American Hindu community, some of whom are also supporters of far right anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism in India, may have also played a role in some of her public stances.

Thus, as much as some anti-interventionists on the left may not like it, it can’t be denied that there’s a lot to pick through in the Congresswoman’s public record, especially if one is willing to go far into her past as mainstream outlets have already begun to do.

Aside from the Syrian trip, the main problems being highlighted at present are her indefensible positions on gay marriage and other LGBTQ issues in her 20s and, somewhat problematic considered her present anti-interventionist stance, her defense of the thoroughly discredited ‘ticking timebomb’ scenario used in vague ‘thought experiments’ and Hollywood fictions to excuse the internationally recognized crime of torture, in 2014.

To deal with the latter first, on Indian TV a little more than five years ago, Gabbard took the position that there is still a debate about the effectiveness of torture in preventing terrorist acts. The equivocating defense she gave for practices that most experts have long agreed don’t work doesn’t seem to have beem retracted and is serious enough that she should asked whether the opinion she expressed in the interview have changed.

On LGBTQ rights, the positions that Gabbard had early in her career will rightfully horrify members of these communities and their allies; Gabbard wasn’t just opposed to same sex marriage as many in her party, including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, were until at least 2012, but also opposed civil unions and called activists from these communities “homosexual extremists”.

Though it doesn’t excuse them, these hurtful statements were made early in her career and, she has said, under the influence of her socially conservative father who founded a nonprofit in Hawaii called the Alliance for Traditional Marriage.

To reassure voters from these communities that her thinking has evolved, she has made several public statements, including a recent writtenone to CNN in which she said, “First, let me say I regret the positions I took in the past, and the things I said. I’m grateful for those in the LGBTQ+ community who have shared their aloha with me throughout my personal journey. Over the past six years in Congress, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to help work toward passing legislation that ensures equal rights and protections on LGBTQ+ issues, such as the Equality Act, the repeal of DOMA, Restore Honor to Service members Act, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Equality for All Resolution. Much work remains to ensure equality and civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ Americans and if elected President, I will continue to fight for equal rights for all.”

Another thing that will probably be used to attack the Congresswoman is something beyond her control: she is popular with some on the right, especially anti-interventionist Paleo-Conservatives and Libertarians

While her willingness to take on the power brokers in her own party won her friends on the left, this, along with her military service and her past statements on ‘Islamic terrorism’, also got her noticed by perpetual schemer Steve Bannon, who set up a meeting between her and President Trump in the wake of Clinton’s unexpected 2016 loss. In hindsight, agreeing to the meeting was a probably a mistake but it’s possible to imagine that Trump’s sometimes anti-interventionist posture on the campaign trail may have led the Congresswoman to believe he might become an unexpected ally in reining in the country’s militarism.

More recently, Gabbard took Bannon to task for comments he made in an interview with PBS, in which he compared her anti-war, left populism to that of the current president, with the Congresswoman saying, “Trump’s so-called populism has been a fraud. True populism means standing up, fighting for the interests of all the American people, not the big corporations and the 1 (percent). Real populism is caring for all the American people, regardless of race, political party, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.”

Whatever one thinks of the Congresswoman for Hawaii’s 2nd District, and she certainly has fans who believe she can do no wrong, having a candidate who has honed arguments about U.S. foreign policy and adventurism abroad during the primaries will only add value to the debates and force other progressives on the stage to articulate their own foreign policy ideas alongside their domestic agendas.

Although you almost never hear about it, after 18 years of war in Afghanistan and beyond, large numbers of Americans, especially the thousands who have experienced it like Gabbard and their families, are weary of these endless interventions that, besides the horrific tolls in faraway nations, have led to a tragic epidemics of suicide and mental illness in veterans and growing numbers of homelessness among them.

While it’s far too early to dismiss all of the criticisms of the candidate, Tulsi Gabbard is the only person in the race as far as this writer knows who has experienced America’s wars firsthand and as a result will sound more authentic in criticizing them to a national audience, a net positive in and of itself. It will be interesting to see how more centrist candidates like Kamala Harris, Kristen Gillebrand and others expected to announce their own campaigns in the days and weeks ahead respond to her critique of the United State’s often belligerent foreign policy.


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