Earlier this month Congresswoman and 2020 presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard hosted a town hall in New York City, one of the many Democrats hoping to make a run against President Trump. What sets Gabbard apart from the other Democrats is she decided to make foreign policy her central issue on the campaign trail.
A big proponent of diplomacy, Gabbard is known for her controversial trip to Syria in 2017, where she met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Her trip to Syria got her negative attention from the mainstream media, and positive attention from the antiwar crowd. She introduced a bill to the floor of Congress called "The Stop Arming Terrorists Act," being one of the only members of Congress to recognize the U.S. arming of violent jihadists in Syria.
Gabbard is an Iraq War veteran, and still a member of the National Guard, holding the rank of Major. She draws upon her experience in Iraq when she talks about ending and preventing more costly regime change wars. Gabbard was quick to speak out about the situation in Venezuela, on Julian Assange and escalating tensions with Iran. The Congresswoman does not wait around to see what her peers say to make sure she doesn’t speak out of line, she has her convictions and stick to them.
But there is one major flaw in Gabbard’s rhetoric and policy, the way she views the War on Terror. Her most well-known quote on it saying, "when it comes to the war against terrorists, I’m a hawk," which she follows up with, "When it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I’m a dove."
One member of the audience at the town hall asked Gabbard about that quote and expressed his concern with it, wondering why she considers the war on terror and regime change wars so different. She answered, "When I say that I’m a hawk on this war on terror against groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, I believe that we have to be tough and defeat that threat in order to keep the American people safe. That’s a fact."
After her vague answer, she went on to talking about her role in trying to end the war in Yemen, quickly going off topic. She has said in many interviews that we need to defeat the threat these terrorist groups pose to the U.S., but has never gone further in detail than naming a few terrorist groups.
Unfortunately, when interviewed by the mainstream media, Gabbard doesn’t get much of a chance to get into the details of her foreign policy. She’s usually just called an Assad apologist or gets grilled about homophobic statements she made years ago, which she has apologized for many times. In one interview on Morning Joe she even had to explain to the hosts that US troops in Syria were not fighting Assad’s forces.
Back in May, Gabbard was interviewed by the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald. One of the first things discussed in the interview was the recent release of the Mueller report, which Gabbard had this to say, "The Mueller Report made clear that there was no evidence of collusion." This was a refreshing thing to hear a Democratic member of Congress say.
Greenwald then went on to press Gabbard about her foreign policy, specifically her views on terrorism and Islam, he asked, "What is your view of Islam and Muslims in general, and the threat that they pose relative to other threats to US security?" Gabbard disagreed with the framing of his question, saying it implied she believes people who practice Islam pose a threat.
"I’ve been very specific in pointing out the ideology that drives terrorist groups…and how important it is to us to understand that ideology," Greenwald asks what ideology she is talking about, "That most extreme, most intolerant, twisted form of Islam known as Wahhabi Salafist ideology, that basically preaches exclusivism…that if you do not adhere to that ideology, you will be killed, or raped or tortured." It appears Gabbard doesn’t believe people who practice Islam are a threat, just those who practice this specific type.
Greenwald asked the question anybody who’s antiwar would ask, "Is what is fueling this violence, in your view based on that ‘twisted’ form of Islam, or is it driven and fueled by US interference in that region?"
With little hesitation Gabbard responded, "It’s driven by this ideology." She added, "there is also a link to United States regime change wars that have strengthened these terrorist groups." Her reference to regime change wars does not account for any US intervention in the Middle East before September 11th 2001. And the fact is, as both of Osama bin Laden’s fatwas made clear, it was US intervention that drove him to declare war on the US.
Greenwald did mention that bin Laden said his motivation were things like, sanctions on Iraq, US military bases in Saudi Arabia and US aid to Israel, to which Gabbard responded, "Like I said, I think the two are related," although the only intervention Gabbard did bring up before Greenwald pointed these things out, was all post September 11th.
Gabbard seems to believe we were attacked on September 11th because these certain types of Muslims don’t like our way of life and they think anybody that doesn’t practice their strict form of Islam should be killed.
Anybody who has studied the religion of Islam, knows that these terrorist groups contradict even the most extreme forms of the religion. Although religious texts are generally full of contradictions and open to various interpretations the Quran says, "the killing of a person for reasons other than legal retaliation or for stopping corruption in the land is as great a sin as murdering all of mankind," this makes it clear, killing innocent people is forbidden.
How would it feel for a Salafist Muslim to hear Gabbard call their beliefs "twisted," or watch one of her campaign videos calling out the country of Saudi Arabia for exporting the radical Wahhabi Salafist ideology? Even if every violent jihadist has this form of Islam in common, the overwhelming majority of Wahhabis and Salafists are nonviolent.
Gabbard has faced religious bigotry herself, being the first Hindu member of Congress, critics of hers even refer to her as a "Hindu nationalist," mainly because she said some kind words about India’s Prime Minister Modi. Before she spoke at the event in NYC, one of the videos her staff had playing was about the Hinduphobia Gabbard has experienced, drawing parallels with the religious bigotry JFK was a victim to in his run for presidency, people questioning if his loyalty would be to the US or the Vatican.
An old Arabic teacher of mine, an Egyptian – I’m not sure of his sect — when we got to talking about religion he told me his views and they were pretty extreme. I had expressed interest in the Muslim faith with him before, and after that he would ask me if I’ve thought about converting, because he was genuinely concerned about my eternal damnation. Our conversations weren’t much different from ones people of different Christian denominations have.
In a recent interview with the Independent, Gabbard said she feels the foreign policy establishment is threatened by her campaign. "So, by speaking the truth about these issues, I think they see it as a direct threat to the line that’s been sold to the American people for far too long."
Gabbard is right about the foreign policy establishment lying us into regime change wars, but she needs to understand the lies and false narrative that was sold to the American people in the wake of September 11th. We weren’t attacked for our way of life, we were attacked as a direct result of our government’s interventionist policies in the Middle East.
Although some of Gabbard’s rhetoric is still troubling, it is good to see a candidate putting foreign policy first. She has the power to bring antiwar folks together from all sides of the political spectrum. The Congresswoman’s views can grow and maybe if the right people get in her ear, her rhetoric will start to sound more like truly antiwar presidential candidates of the past, like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich.