On January 11, Tulsi Gabbard, a four-term Democratic representative from Hawaii, announced she was running for president in 2020. Gabbard’s candidacy is already tainted by her youthful history of homophobia, but her decision to focus on “the issue of war and peace” at a time when the party’s biggest guns are aimed at domestic problems sets her apart in a crowded field.
Gabbard’s heterodox views and military service could yet animate a significant number of voters and shift the debate, but not for the better: Taken together, Gabbard’s positions represent almost everything a left foreign policy should avoid.
In the long shadow of the Iraq War, Gabbard’s vocal opposition to US-led regime change in the Middle East has made her appealing to skeptics of the foreign-policy establishment’s “unquestioning fidelity” to military intervention. In their view, Gabbard is a lonely voice, one of the only politicians to learn the lessons of Iraq, Libya, and Syria: that removing dictators costs American lives and taxpayer dollars, devastates the people of those countries, and spawns humanitarian crises. Writing in The Nation in 2016, Gabbard said that she wanted “to give voice to the millions of Americans, including my fellow veterans, who desperately want to end our country’s illegal, counterproductive war to overthrow the Syrian government,” which risked allowing “ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups…to take over all of Syria.”
Yet it would be a mistake to place Gabbard in the lineage of internationalist, anti-war American leftism that seeks, among other things, to help emancipate and defend the oppressed. In fact, Gabbard’s public record points in a much different direction, toward an “America first” Trumpism of the left that would restore the Middle East’s dictators club as long as it benefits the United States. On closer analysis, hers is a foreign policy that favors authoritarianism cloaked as counter-terrorism, nationalism cloaked as anti-interventionism, and Islamophobia barely cloaked at all.
To begin, Gabbard doesn’t actually oppose military intervention, or the abusive tactics used to prosecute the “war on terror,” as long as they’re directed against those she identifies as Islamic extremists. She summarized her philosophy neatly in 2016, telling West Hawaii Today that “when it comes to the war against terrorists, I’m a hawk. When it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I’m a dove.”
Gabbard is a staunch supporter of the United States’ counter-ISIS campaign, but her view of the fight goes much further. During a visit to India in 2014, she told an interviewer that the United States had failed in its “very clear” mission to defeat “Islamic extremism”—the fight she said led her to enlist after the September 11 attacks—and that we needed “to focus all of our efforts and energy” and “root out this evil wherever it is.” When pressed on whether torture could be part of those efforts, Gabbard didn’t reject it, saying some believed it worked. Invoking the fantastical scenario of a ticking nuclear time bomb, Gabbard said that if she were president, she “would do everything in my power to keep the American people safe.” If there was a gap between Gabbard’s philosophy and the forever war, it was hard to spot.
Gabbard’s hawkishness on Islamic terrorism has led in strange directions for someone perceived to be on the left. In 2015, for example, invoking a plan floated nearly a decade earlier by then–Vice President Joe Biden, she told CNN that to defeat ISIS, the United States needed to abandon the “fantasy” of a “unified Iraq” and help divide the country into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish areas. (Renad Mansour, an Iraq expert at Chatham House, told The Nation that “neither the US nor Iran nor the neighboring countries will entertain the idea of splitting up Iraq.”)
Perhaps most notoriously, she has engaged with brutal authoritarians such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the name of countering “terrorism.” In 2015, two years after he orchestrated the worst mass killing of protesters in modern history, a smiling Gabbard appeared next to a grinning Sisi on a visit to Cairo, after which she praised him for showing “great courage and leadership” in the fight against “extreme Islamist ideology.”
In January 2017—on a trip organized by members of the fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party—Gabbard met with Assad, explaining herself afterward by saying that no meeting should be off the table “if we profess to truly care about the Syrian people.” That sympathy apparently did not extend to anyone who’d fought against Assad or belonged to the Syrian opposition, to whom she had previously tried to outlaw US assistance. Assad was a “brutal dictator,” Gabbard wrote, but “[e]very Syrian soldier we and our Saudi partners kill is one less soldier available to fight against ISIS.”
All of this might seem out of character for a member of the Democratic Party’s Bernie Sanders wing, but if there is a common thread to much of Gabbard’s foreign-policy worldview, it’s a suspicion of Islam.
Gabbard’s bona fides rest on her military experience: two voluntary deployments with the Hawaii Army National Guard, the first in a field medical unit at the sprawling Camp Anaconda in Iraq in 2005 and the second as a trainer for the Kuwait National Guard in 2009. When she came home from Kuwait, Gabbard later wrote, she had a realization: “The contrast between our society and those in the Middle East made me realize that the difference—the reason those societies are so oppressive—is that they are essentially theocracies where the government and government leaders wield the power to both define and then enforce ‘morality.’”
Discovering this, Gabbard explained, led her to reevaluate her own opposition to homosexuality. Freedom was precious, and no government should “dictate these most personal aspects of our lives,” she wrote.
But Gabbard’s military service overseas had led her to a fundamentally mistaken conclusion about the Middle East. Though she’d correctly identified some of the symptoms, her diagnosis was backward. The most abusive and dictatorial governments, by and large, have not been theocracies but nominally secular regimes. Many of the worst crimes—Assad’s chemical attacks and extermination camps, Sisi’s massacre of protesters, Muammar Gaddafi’s hangings and mass executions, Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurds—have been committed by the kind of “secular” autocrats Gabbard wants to stay in power.
Gabbard’s crusade against “extremist Islam” appeared to blind her to this reality. In her statement following her meeting with Assad, she blamed the “regime-change war” led by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and “Gulf states” for the deaths of more than 400,000 Syrians and the creation of millions of refugees. Left unmentioned was the real origin of the conflict: the Assad regime’s decision in 2011 to suppress peaceful protests with force, and the radicalization of the opposition through a brutal crackdown, beginning with the arrest and torture of children in the city of Deraa. After the Trump administration struck air bases to punish the Assad regime for a likely chemical attack in 2017, Gabbard accused the government of acting “recklessly” and risking the “strengthening of terrorists.” Left unmentioned was the long, clear and nonpartisan evidence of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
Opposing intervention and regime change was one thing, but Gabbard went much further, adopting Sisi and Assad’s talking points, denying their opponents agency and humanity, and effectively endorsing their systematic abuses of human rights as long as they were directed against the right people.
What laid behind this? Gabbard’s story about her time in Kuwait, including the “eye-opening” sight of “women covered from head to toe with burqa,” points to a years-long suspicion of Islam and a dalliance with Islamophobic strains in American politics that precedes the Trump presidency. In 2015, for instance, Gabbard spoke at a conference of Christians United for Israel, an organization led by John Hagee, a leading Islamophobe. Hagee—whom John McCain renounced in 2008 after Hagee said Adolf Hitler hastened God’s plan by forcing Jews back to Israel—has written of a “theological war” to prevent the spread of “global shari’ah.”
Echoing right-wing critics like Hagee, Gabbard chastised President Obama for not using the words “radical Islam” to characterize groups like ISIS, which Obama had avoided so as to not vilify the religion as a whole. Years before Trump’s travel ban, Gabbard supported the SAFE Act, which would have effectively frozen the admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees by requiring unanimous approval for each person from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and director of national intelligence, and she introduced a bill to suspend the Visa Waiver Program for anyone from a country whose citizens had gone to fight with ISIS.
One year later, Gabbard introduced a resolution calling for prioritizing the admission of refugees who were ethnic and religious minorities, “especially Christians and Yazidis.”
Unsurprisingly, Gabbard’s brand of nationalism—which involves pulling back from the Middle East but allying with the region’s worst authoritarians and shutting the borders to refugees but not the Christian ones—caught the eye of Steve Bannon, who arranged a 2016 meeting with President-elect Trump. “He loves Tulsi Gabbard. Loves her,” a source familiar with Bannon’s thinking told the Hill at the time. “She would fit perfectly too [inside the administration].… She gets the foreign policy stuff, the Islamic terrorism stuff.”
This was the Gabbard who earned a fawning 2015 profile in National Review (the headline called her “tough” and “beautiful”) and praise from the president of the American Enterprise Institute. It was also the Gabbard who befriended controversial nationalist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—long denied a visa to the United States for his role in the bloody 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, where he was chief minister—and gave him the Bhagavad Gita on which she’d sworn her oath of office as a gift.
Gabbard’s defenders have argued that she rightly seeks to “get out” of the Middle East and focus on greater threats, like terrorism and China. But that’s not where Gabbard’s policies would actually lead. The indefinite war against “extremist Islam” requires the United States to be very much “in” the Middle East, working hand in glove with some of the region’s worst actors. Gabbard’s strategy simply transfers the cost from our citizens to theirs.
In a perceptive 2017 article for Jacobin, Branko Marcetic wrote that Gabbard’s worldview “is nationalism in antiwar garb, reinforcing instead of undercutting the toxic rhetoric that treats foreigners as less deserving of dignity than Americans.”
As the Democratic Party’s foreign-policy debate evolves, leftists and progressives should stand for an internationalism that rests on the principles of equality, justice, and human rights. Complex questions surrounding humanitarian intervention remain, but allying with dictators for our own parochial interests and shutting the doors on those who flee them are not the right answers, nor can Islamophobia be tolerated. The left can do better.