On Monday, it was reported that Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard was numbered among the day’s visitors to Trump Tower to meet with President-elect Donald Trump. Up until then, with the notable exception of former Republican presidential nominee and Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, there had been almost no surprise faces among those job seekers and potential advisers who have met with Trump following his surprise victory on November 8. ABC News reported that a member of the Trump transition said the two had “an excellent meeting.”
That Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran and a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, is now said to be under consideration for a number of high-level posts, including secretary of state, secretary of defense, and ambassador to the UN, is a small, yet positive sign that Trump may not (yet) be held captive to the regnant foreign-policy orthodoxy to which almost the entirety of the Washington establishment remains in thrall.
After the meeting, Gabbard, who will be contributing to The Nation’s forthcoming progressive foreign-policy forum in December, said in a statement that she “felt it important to take the opportunity to meet with the president-elect now before the drumbeats of war that neocons have been beating drag us into an escalation of the war to overthrow the Syrian government.”
The meeting between Gabbard and Trump makes sense given that the two share some common ground on a number of foreign-policy issues, particularly as it concerns the foreign-policy establishment’s unquestioning fidelity to the twin policies of military intervention and regime change.
Throughout the campaign, Trump repeatedly stated his opposition to the Obama administration’s policy of fighting ISIS while also training and funding rebel groups which seek to overthrow the Syrian government. Shortly after the election, Trump attempted to explain his position on Syria to The Wall Street Journal by saying: “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS.”
In November 2015, Gabbard (along with Georgia Republican Scott Austin) introduced legislation that would defund the administration’s “train and equip” program to overthrow the Assad government. At the time, Gabbard explained that overthrowing Assad “is counter-productive because it actually helps ISIS and other Islamic extremists achieve their goal of overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad and taking control of all of Syria.”
Likewise, both Trump and Gabbard have warned that the administration risks sparking a wider war with Russia as long as it continues its policy of regime change in Syria. Gabbard told The Nation in June that escalating the war to overthrow Assad “could lead to a direct confrontation with Russia,” while Trump mocked his Republican-primary opponents by claiming “they want to start World War III over Syria. Give me a break.”
Some have speculated that Gabbard’s November 2015 vote for the cynically named SAFE (American Security Against Foreign Enemies) Act, which sought to ban the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the US, endeared Gabbard to the likes of Trump chief strategist and soon to be White House counselor Steve Bannon. Yet this is unfair.
When Trump weighed in on the refugee issue around the time the SAFE Act was being ushered through the House, he condemned the plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in no uncertain terms, denouncing it as “one of the great Trojan horses.” He then went on to declare that we cannot let Syrian refugees “into this country, period.” Yet Gabbard’s objection to the resettlement program was based on the not-unfounded concern that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wasn’t up to the job.
In a statement defending her vote, she noted that “originally, like many Democrats…I was inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the Department of Homeland Security and the Administration,” but, she continued, “Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough failed to answer simple questions about why they were opposed to the bill, which led me to change my mind.” Johnson and McDonough failed to assure the 47 House Democrats who also voted for SAFE that the DHS had allocated enough staff to properly certify that the vetting process was in fact being carried out. As such, Gabbard’s position is qualitatively different from Trump’s.
Yet questions remain. Among them: Would Gabbard’s sober realism be drowned out in an administration dominated by hardliners like Steve Bannon, the just-named National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and a Secretary of State John Bolton or Rudy Giuliani? How would Trump reconcile the positions of longtime Iran-hawks like possible Defense Secretary James Mattis with Gabbard’s oft-stated opposition to overthrowing Assad, who is a longtime client of Iran?
Nevertheless, in meeting with Gabbard, Trump is hopefully signaling that he is seeking to move away from the counterproductive, dangerous, and largely self-perpetuating foreign-policy consensus of regime change and military intervention of the past 25 years.
It is unlikely the president-elect understands that in order to “make America great again” he will need to form a cabinet not of far-right male clones like Bannon and Sessions, but will also have to embrace America’s diversity—as well as a good deal of independent, iconoclastic thinking.
Yet if that unlikely event is the case, then a Secretary Gabbard just might fit the bill.