• Dylan Springer

Tulsi Gabbard Has Some Questions to Answer

Updated: Jan 17, 2019

Tulsi Gabbard's official Congressional portrait. (Wikimedia Commons)

With the midterms over and the 2020 race for the presidency begun, we are now faced with a playing field in which many of the top Democratic contenders for the office are advocating foreign policies which have previously been largely thought of as fringe. Perhaps the one candidate who most stands out so far is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D.-Hawaii).

On a personal level, she has several distinguishing features: she is the first Hindu member of Congress, an Iraq War veteran, and rose to prominence after resigning as vice chairperson of the Democratic party in order to endorse the democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I.-Vermont) during the 2016 election. She is widely seen as a firebrand progressive with a strong military background.

On domestic issues, her endorsement of Bernie Sanders and her fervent opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the grounds that it would benefit large multinational corporations at the expense of the average American worker place her squarely on the left-wing of the Democratic party. Her foreign policy views, on the other hand, are a great deal more complex.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gabbard’s history as an officer in the Hawaii National Guard — as someone who saw firsthand the horrors of America’s ongoing wars in the Middle East — has led her to become a staunch anti-interventionist. In 2017 she co-sponsored a bill with the libertarian Sen. Rand Paul called the ‘Stop Arming Terrorists Act’, which if passed would have been a big step towards curbing U.S. military aid and involvement in the Middle East.

Tulsi Gabbard is promoted major of the U.S. Army. (Wikimedia Commons)

More controversially on the left, she also criticized President Obama for continually refusing to use the term ‘radical Islam’ when describing the motivations of some terror groups, and (to the howling protests of people on all sides of the political spectrum) met with the besieged dictator of Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, in an effort to move towards brokering peace in the region. For these such actions she has been lauded by right-wing figures like Stephen Bannon, who is sometimes described as a white nationalist.

In her own words, ‘[W]hen it comes to the war against terrorists, I’m a hawk—’ (she was recently criticized for refusing to disavow the use of torture to extract information from suspected terrorists) ‘[but when] it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I’m a dove’.*

Despite earning a great deal of goodwill amongst American progressives for her conduct in the 2016 election, her more right-wing foreign policy views and her past homophobia (she was strongly against gay marriage and spoke in terms so harsh that they would seem out of place in today’s Republican party, though she now claims to have changed and has consistently supported LGBT rights in office) have earned her the ire of the left. Perhaps the most influential socialist magazine in the United States, Jacobin, declared in a 2017 article headline that ‘Tulsi Gabbard is Not Your Friend’.**

Assuming she is able to maneuver an increasingly-crowded field of Democratic primary candidates (pundits estimate the finally tally could reach as high as 20) and Gabbard defeats President Trump in 2020, what would a Gabbard Administration foreign policy actually look like?

Unfortunately, her eclectic blend of policies make it hard to see a clear, coherent picture of any sort of overall strategy. Being a ‘hawk’ towards terrorism implies continued support for drone strikes and other surgical attacks abroad in the name of national security, and her overly-enthusiastic support of the nationalist, anti-Muslim Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi would no doubt earn her the enmity of much of the Muslim world. On the other hand, being a ‘dove’ when it comes to wars of regime change is not as simple as it seems: while she opposes removing or supporting dictators simply because they are anti-American (a longtime and deeply troubling habit of the United States), she is also known for sharply criticizing totalitarian states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, all of which constitutes a rather incoherent moral framework.

In short, a Gabbard Administration could see a rather monumental reversal in the prevailing American foreign policy of the past seventy or so years. Gone would be our support for Saudi Arabia, Pakistan (especially coinciding with a closer U.S.-India relationship), and a whole host of other totalitarian regimes; but, paradoxically, we would probably continue to carry out unpopular anti-terrorist actions, such as drone strikes. Discarding Gabbard’s strange admiration of Prime Minister Modi, her questionable stance on torture and alleged Islamophobia, the main thread of her views seem to be an intense opposition towards regime change, the military-industrial complex, and endless war.

While she shares these more admirable views with candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Massachusetts) and Sen. Sanders, what is missing from her outlook and what is present in the statements of the latter two is humanitarianism: Gabbard opposes regime change because it doesn’t work, not because it is morally wrong. As noted by New York Magazine, her opposition from the Iraq War stemmed primarily from seeing the plight of the American soldiers sent to fight it rather than the suffering of the war’s millions of innocent civilian victims.

There seems to be, at least on the foreign-policy front, a sense of Trumpian ‘America-Firstism’ in Gabbard’s public statements. With the scrutiny of such past statements only increasing in the first few days after her official campaign announcement, one can imagine she will not make it very far in the party primaries unless she is able to forge a coherent moral and strategic message to go with her unique foreign policy positions.


* New York Magazine: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/10/tulsi-gabbards-foreign-policy-and-the-progressive-left.html

** Jacobin: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/05/tulsi-gabbard-president-sanders-democratic-party

The Huffington Post: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/tulsi-gabbard-2020-presidential-run-foreign-policy_us_5c393bb2e4b01c93e00a0009

At the time of writing, Dylan Springer is a second year student at the University of St Andrews studying History. He is particularly interested in modern European history and politics and U.S. foreign policy.