Tulsi Gabbard: Democrat rising star, presidential hopeful and defender of dictators

Analysis: Controversial congresswoman’s dalliances with Bashar al-Assad and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi might harm her election chances

Richard Hall
Beirut
,Andrew Buncombe
Monday 21 January 2019 14:47
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Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard defends meeting with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

To her supporters, 37-year-old Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is a breath of fresh air; fiercely anti-war, a candidate with life experience that belies her years who appeals to an increasingly vocal set of young, progressive Democrats.

But her entrance into the 2020 presidential race, announced earlier this month, has brought with it a host of controversy that threatens to set back her campaign before it has even begun, including accusations of ignoring the crimes of some of the world’s most brutal dictators.

Gabbard, a veteran of the Iraq War, rose to prominence during the 2016 presidential campaign when she resigned as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and threw her support behind Bernie Sanders. Her domestic policies closely match that of her mentor – her positions on Wall Street reform, the environment and healthcare have struck a chord with the progressives who propelled Sanders’ better than expected run.

Her main focus, however, has been foreign policy. When she described her motivations behind running for the White House earlier this month, she said there was “one main issue that is central to the rest, and that is the issue of war and peace”.

Her military experience and position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have given her an air of authenticity. She has used her platform to criticise of US military adventures abroad, winning fans on both the left and right. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former White House chief strategist, is reportedly among her admirers.

And yet what many see as her biggest strength, others see as a potential downfall. She has set herself apart from her own party with a focus on “radical Islamic terrorism” at home and abroad, and has come to represent something as a paradox – a part of what some have described as the “alt-left”.

In an effort to burnish her foreign policy credentials, she has taken a proactive approach to international diplomacy that has brought her into contact with some prolific human-rights abusers. Not only that, she has often found common cause with them.

Evan Hill, writing in The Nation, succinctly described her foreign policy as “a Trumpism of the left that would restore the Middle East’s dictators club as long as it benefits the United States”.

Her passport stamps from the past few years go a long way to supporting that theory. In January 2017, Gabbard drew criticism from her own party for meeting with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad during a “fact-finding” visit to the country, even after he had been blamed for a litany of war crimes and chemical weapons attacks against his own people.

The congresswoman said her visit, which was the first by a sitting US lawmaker since the conflict began, was aimed at bringing an end to the war.

“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,” she told CNN, in defence of her meeting with Assad.

But her views on the Syrian conflict go beyond a humanitarian concern. She has repeatedly characterised the conflict as a battle between radical Islamic terrorists and a secular government. She said she was “sceptical” that Assad was behind a chemical weapons attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun that killed dozens of people in 2017, saying “there are a number of theories out there”.

She has praised President Vladimir Putin for bombing al-Qaeda-linked rebels there, and criticised Barack Obama for not doing the same, at a time when the US was doing just that.

“Al-Qaeda attacked us on 9/11 and must be defeated. Obama won’t bomb them in Syria. Putin did. #neverforget911” she wrote on Twitter in 2015.

Following her week-long trip to Syria, she tabled a bill titled “Stop Arming Terrorists”, aimed at halting US support for Syrian rebels. She also called on the US to “end our war to overthrow the Syrian government and focus our attention on defeating al-Qaeda”.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, has testified twice on Syria to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which Gabbard is a member.

“Tulsi Gabbard’s views on Syria appear to be driven by a strange fusion of ‘America First isolationism’ and a belief in the value of autocratic and secular leaders in confronting extremism,” he says.

“[She] says she’s a fierce opponent of terrorism, but she has blindly refused to acknowledge that it is Assad who’s been responsible for at least 90 per cent of the deaths in Syria since 2011. Her descriptions of the crisis in Syria read like they were composed in Assad’s personal office, or in Tehran or Moscow – not Washington.”

Assad isn’t the only Middle East dictator who has got off lightly with Gabbard. In 2015, the congresswoman met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 coup and has since presided over “a crackdown almost unparalleled in Egypt’s history” according to Human Rights Watch.

Following their meeting, she said the president had “shown great courage and leadership in taking on this extreme Islamist ideology, while also fighting against Isis militarily to keep them from gaining a foothold in Egypt”.

“The US must take action to recognise President al-Sisi and his leadership,” she added.

Her descriptions of the crisis in Syria read like they were composed in Assad’s personal office, or in Tehran or Moscow – not Washington 

Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute 

When it comes to the Middle East, at least, Gabbard’s foreign policy has more in common with Trump’s than it does her own party’s. Her view on the threat of “radical Islam” – that it should be fought at the expense of human rights – was reportedly the reason Steve Bannon orchestrated a meeting between her and Trump following his election win.

That association, perhaps even more than her dalliances with Assad and Sisi, may harm her chances in 2020.

She has joined what is expected to be a very large number of candidates, a total that may even beat the nearly two-dozen Republicans who contested in 2016.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have also formally entered the race, as has former Obama cabinet member Julian Castro.

In the coming days and weeks, people will be watching for similar announcements from Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, former congressman Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.

A December poll of voters in Iowa, which holds its primary 12 months from now placed Biden first with 32 points, with Sanders (19 points), O’Rourke (11) and Warren (8) following.

In a crowded field, Gabbard will need to work hard to stand out for positive reasons.

To date, much of the media coverage she has received could not be described as that. Earlier this month she was obliged to apologise for her previous work for an organisation her father ran in Hawaii that opposed same-sex marriage and promoted controversial “conversion” therapy.

“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,” she said.

And just this weekend, she was again forced to defend her decision to talk with Assad.

Asked on CNN if she had any regret about the encounter, she said: “No, I think that it is, it continues to be very important for any leader in this country to be willing to meet with others, whether they be friends or adversaries or potential adversaries if we are serious about the pursuit of peace and securing our country.”

Gabbard’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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