Can an American Presidential Candidate Truly Be Anti-War? Tulsi Gabbard Is About to Find Out

Politics Features Tulsi Gabbard
Can an American Presidential Candidate Truly Be Anti-War? Tulsi Gabbard Is About to Find Out

Bernie Sanders has spoken out repeatedly against a potential war of regime change in Venezuela, as you’d expect from the democratic-socialist who represents the greatest presidential hope of the American left, but in recent days, he has softened his stance with rhetoric that hews closely to the state department’s line on Nicolas Maduro:

Anyone who has followed U.S. foreign policy knows how quickly “humanitarian aid” can turn into overt material support for far-right rebels seeking regime change, especially when the “aid” efforts are led by neocon ghouls like Elliott Abrams. It’s a familiar playbook, and despite his broad anti-war stance, Sanders’ reference to humanitarian aid and his anti-Maduro warning give a tacit nod to those in the Trump administration who want the Venezuelan president out by any means necessary.

It also left just one presidential hopeful who stood firmly for unapologetic anti-interventionism: Hawaiian congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.

Her logic makes sense—if you believe that it’s not America’s job to police the world, and that, in fact, our attempts at intervention and regime change have uniformly ended in disaster for our enemies and ourselves, from central America to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya, you simply cannot support a war of intervention. As she said in the video above, “there’s no justification.” Period.

To put it more simply, it’s imperative to ask these two questions about any potential war:

1. Can America win?

2. If America wins, will the other country or America itself be better off in the aftermath?

If the answer to either question is “no,” then the war is a bad idea from a practical and ethical perspective. And as we’ve seen, time and time again, the answer to question two is always “no.” The juice is never worth the squeeze.

Gabbard has served for 15 years in the Hawaii National Guard, and was deployed to Iraq for a 12-month tour in 2004 as part of a field medical unit, and again to Kuwait in 2008. Her firsthand experience with war has informed her foreign policy worldview, but this worldview is in direct conflict with the so-called “blob”—the Washington D.C. foreign policy establishment, in conjunction with the military-industrial complex, which encompasses powerful figures from both parties and generally believes in, and advocates for, war. Those who depart from the ruling doctrine of profit by aggression are deemed either fundamentally unserious or so serious as to be dangerous, and the pressure and influence exerted by the blob can be seen in how few so-called “liberal” candidates ever take a strong anti-war stance, and how some of those who do—even avowed progressives like Bernie Sanders—can be subtly bullied into echoing the power structure.

Gabbard remains stubbornly opposed, and has faced a disproportionate number of attacks as a result—a clear indication that despite a relatively marginal status in the Democratic primary, her anti-war stance (in combination with her service history and her charisma) makes her a feared figure.

The criticism from the establishment right is almost too obvious to discuss—they make lots of money from war, are generally bellicose on foreign policy, and have shown an avowed refusal to learn from America’s litany of historical mistakes. It’s the criticism from the left that raises an eyebrow, and much of it concerns the fact that Gabbard’s anti-interventionism echoes a different section of the political right—the “hard right,” which is represented by the likes of Steve Bannon, and which is, despite Trump’s drain-the-swamp campaign rhetoric, still utterly powerless. Here’s Eoin Higgins, who has written critically on Gabbard for Paste, drawing the connection in New York last year:

But a steady drumbeat of criticism from progressives claims that Gabbard also has sympathies with Steve Bannon-style nationalists on the hard right, whose foreign-policy view is also fundamentally anti-interventionist. Her detractors argue that her policy overlap with the hard right is consistent and substantive enough that it ought to undermine her credibility as someone who could represent consensus progressive values in the White House.

If “Gabbardism” is a foreign-policy school of thought, it is perhaps best captured by her own words. “In short, when it comes to the war against terrorists, I’m a hawk,” Gabbard told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in 2016. “When it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I’m a dove.” It’s a sentiment that wouldn’t be out of place in Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign — or in Pat Buchanan’s in 1992.

It’s easy to see the circular argument of the Gabbard detractors that Higgins references here: If there’s a segment of the right that opposes wars of intervention, then it’s bad for anyone to oppose wars of intervention since the anti-interventionist right is bad. It divorces the issue from debate—”are wars of intervention good?”—and places it squarely in the realm of ideology by association. In this sense, there’s no way for anyone on the left to justifiably oppose regime change in places like Iraq or Venezuela, and it’s a subtly effective way for the center-left and center-right to “narrow the spectrum of acceptable opinion,” to quote Noam Chomsky.

What Gabbard represents, then, is an attempt to broaden that Overton Window, and that represents a direct threat to the Blob. It’s no wonder that she has become such a massive target despite trailing almost everyone in the (admittedly early) polls.

Which isn’t to say that there are no legitimate foreign policy criticisms of Gabbard from the left. The criticism she’s faced for her 2016 quote on being a “hawk” in matters of terrorism feels like thin gruel—there’s literally no Democratic candidate who will paint themselves as anything but tough on terrorism, whatever that actually means—and painting her as a “nationalist” because Steve Bannon said a few positive words for her and landed her a meeting at Trump Tower strikes me as equally unconvincing, since Gabbard never had a chance to influence a Trump administration and Bannon himself was soon whisked out for his foreign policy views when it became clear the swamp would not be drained.

Nor does it seem especially troubling that, when pressed, she questioned the Trump administration’s line on Syria at a time when it looked like an alleged chemical attack might be the basis of another regime change war—questioning such motives became fundamental and necessary after the WMD fiasco in Iraq (or the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, or…), even if she turned out to be wrong, and the fact that she made an enemy of Neera Tanden in the process is practically a badge of honor. And, at the risk of beating a dead horse, it all reverts to the same position anyway: Wars of intervention are a bad idea, regardless of the justification. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that many of Gabbard’s most vociferous critics on the left are those who support specific wars on moral grounds, with very little concern for the likely consequences, and treat her broader anti-war position as a policy of cruelty to the suffering people of the world.

That said, Gabbard did support a punitive 2015 bill that would have made it extremely difficult for war refugees from Iraq and Syria to come to America, and she took a longer than expected time—until May 2017—to stop accepting money from the defense sector. Then there’s her affiliation with Hindu nationalists which have led many to suspect that a strain of Islamophobia runs through Gabbard’s politics (though, somewhat confusingly, she has also been accused of anti-Semitism due to an Arab-American group that paid for her to visit Assad in Syria).

In addition, her appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show Thursday night to tout her anti-war campaign is sure to frustrate and annoy the usual left-wing critics:

Still, it’s no departure—as she demonstrated by meeting with both Assad and Trump, and proved yet again with Tucker Carlson, Gabbard does not adhere to the usual line that simply talking with a reviled figure is the same as boosting that person’s legitimacy. Ideas are paramount, and their dissemination critical. To her, there is little to be lost from talking, as she noted when she met Assad:

“I think we should be ready to meet with anyone if there’s a chance it can bring about an end to this war, which is causing the Syrian people so much suffering.”

As she veers from doctrinaire thinking on this front, so she diverges on war. The Democratic primary is still young, but it’s already clear that Gabbard is the only candidate with the courage to stake out a hard, unwavering anti-war position. Whether she finds her constituency over the course of the campaign, or whether she remains near the bottom of the pack, the simple act of expressing that worldview will make her plenty of enemies among the rich and powerful—in America, criticizing war is tantamount to criticizing business and profit, and that simply won’t stand.

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