Tulsi Gabbard's foreign policy frustrates centrist Democrats, draws cheers from anti-interventionists, and makes her political identity tough to pigeonhole

Tulsi GabbardDemocratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who's running for president in 2020, continues to spark controversy with her unorthodox positions on foreign policy.Stephanie Keith/Reuters

  • Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is running for president in 2020, and her foreign policy has become the most talked about aspect of her campaign. 
  • Gabbard launched her campaign with an anti-war speech, going after both Democrats and Republicans "who never tire of war."
  • Her views on foreign policy simultaneously put her at odds with people on the political left and right, making her political identity difficult to pigeonhole. 
  • Gabbard's stance on Syria, in particular, continues to be a point of controversy for the presidential hopeful. 

Since formally launching her campaign for the presidency in early February, Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has quickly emerged as an outsider in a rapidly expanding field of 2020 candidates.

But Gabbard appears to prefer it this way and seemingly has no issue with pegging herself as an anti-establishment Democrat, especially when it comes to foreign policy. 

She kicked off her campaign with an anti-war speech and has so far made this the centerpiece of her platform. In the speech, Gabbard decried members of "both parties who never tire of war."

 

In the few short weeks since her presidential ambitions were made public, Gabbard has already generated a fair amount of controversy over her unorthodox positions on global affairs, which often put her at odds with Democratic leaders in Washington. 

This is hardly a new trend for Gabbard, who has taken heat from both the left and right over her foreign policy positions, but it's gaining considerably more attention now that she's running for president. 

Gabbard U.S. congresswoman and Iraq war veteran Tulsi Gabbard addresses the crowd as the keynote speaker during Veterans Day ceremonies at Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, November 11, 2013.Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Gabbard is a combat veteran, which informs her anti-war stance

Gabbard's foreign policy is in many ways a metaphor for the US: it's convoluted, often divisive, and difficult to pigeonhole. 

The Hawaii congresswoman is a combat veteran. She served in a field medical unit of the Hawaii Army National Guard in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, and was also deployed to Kuwait from 2008 to 2009.

Read more: Tulsi Gabbard accuses NBC of trying to smear her as 'Kremlin stooge' to 'discredit' her 2020 campaign

Typically, combat veteran status affords politicians a lot of authority when it comes to foreign affairs and national security. The late Republican Sen. John McCain, in particular, comes to mind. 

But Gabbard has taken such unorthodox positions that some skeptics have been questioning her allegiances.

When NBC News published a report alleging Russian propagandists had taken a liking to Gabbard, she accused the outlet of committing "journalistic fraud" in an attempt to "discredit" her campaign. She also seemed to suggest that she will continue to face smears as a "Kremlin stooge" because her views don't align with the Democratic establishment. 

In a recent fundraising email, Gabbard slammed "corporate media" and claimed "Russia-baiting propaganda is being deployed" against her campaign because she's spoken out against "regime change" and a "new Cold War." 

Gabbard's fiercely anti-interventionist disposition puts her in line with many on far end of the political left, and journalists like Glenn Greenwald have emerged as her fiercest defenders.

 

But Gabbard's isolationist leanings have also garnered praise from figures on the far right like former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. With that said, she promptly and forcefully rejected Duke's endorsement.

In short, Gabbard is not your typical Democrat and is perhaps the most confounding candidate to join the 2020 race so far.

Once widely considered to be a rising star among progressives - especially after she resigned as vice-chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016 - Gabbard has become a decidedly anomalous figure for the left.

Gabbard's stance on Syria is the biggest thorn in her campaign's side

No issue draws criticism to Gabbard quite as much as her positions on the conflict in Syria.

In 2017, she traveled to Syria to meet with President Bashar al-Assad, an accused war criminal and an architect of the worst humanitarian crisis the globe has seen since World War II. 

 

She's hardly the first US politician to meet with a controversial leader, nor is she the first to meet with Assad.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, met with Assad during a visit to Syria in 2007 at a time when the US government saw value in increasing dialogue with the Middle Eastern country. But when the civil war in Syria began in 2011, Washington's stance toward Damascus rapidly shifted. 

Gabbard's visit, on the other hand, was done without communicating with Democratic leaders beforehand. She was subsequently accused of giving credibility to an accused war criminal.

Read more: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard announces she's running for president in 2020

At the time, McCain said Gabbard had sent the "wrong signal," adding it "kind of legitimizes a guy who butchered 400,000 of his own people."

Similarly, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who like Gabbard is a veteran of the Iraq War, said the Hawaii congresswoman's trip was "sad" and a "disgrace." He said Gabbard had "legitimized" Assad's "genocide against the Syrian people."

"In no way should any member of Congress, should any government official, ever travel to meet with a guy that has killed 500,000 people and 50,000 children," Kinzinger added.

Gabbard compounded criticism of her visit when she subsequently expressed skepticism over reports Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians.

 

As a result of the visit and such comments, Gabbard was labeled "Assad's mouthpiece" by Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, and was bashed by figures on both sides of the aisle. At the time, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean described Gabbard's remarks as a "disgrace" and said she should not be in Congress.  

Gabbard still has no regrets about visiting Assad in 2017 

Back in 2017, Gabbard defended her meeting with Assad as an opportunity to promote peace through dialogue.

She echoed these sentiments in a recent interview with CNN's Jack Tapper when he asked the congresswoman if she has any regrets about meeting the Syrian leader. 

"I have seen this cost of war firsthand, which is why I fight so hard for peace," Gabbard said. "The only alternative to having these kinds of conversations is more war."

 

'Assad is not the enemy of the United States'

Gabbard also sparked a firestorm of criticism after another recent interview with MSNBC's "Morning Joe" in which she contended Assad was "not the enemy" of the US. 

"Assad is not the enemy of the United States because Syria does not pose a direct threat to the United States," Gabbard said at the time. She also dodged questions over whether Assad is an adversary of the US. 

 

It is true that Assad is not technically an "enemy" of the US given there has been no official declaration of war against the Syrian government by the US government. But Assad has closely allied with top US adversaries like Russia and Iran, and there's a mountain of evidence he's responsible for horrific atrocities against civilians.

Read more: As controversy roils over 2020 candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's anti-gay history, a conservative and a leftist came together to defend her

The US, under President Donald Trump, has also launched military strikes against Assad in response to intelligence pointing to the use of chemical weapons. In this context, many would have no issue describing Assad as a US adversary. 

Gabbard opposed Trump's strikes against Assad and is generally against further US involvement in the region.

She's especially opposed to "regime change wars," like that which occurred in Iraq.

Correspondingly, Gabbard has expressed concerns about intervention in Venezuela and Iran as the Trump administration -  National Security Adviser John Bolton, in particular - ramps up threats against these nations

 

Gabbard's position on Syria is not black and white

During a visit to Iowa on February 11, Gabbard expanded on her views on Assad, referring to him as a "brutal dictator."

"There are brutal dictators in countries around the world. Assad is one of them," she said. This was perhaps the most balanced take she'd offered on the Syrian leader yet. 

Read more: Tulsi Gabbard doubles-down on opposition to US intervention in Syria, says Syrian president and accused war criminal Assad is not America's 'enemy'

But Gabbard in Iowa also said the US is not the "world's police," and she is opposed to stationing US troops in Syria.

Despite this view, she's also expressed concerns over Trump's plan for a "hasty withdrawal" of the roughly 2,000 US troops currently serving there.

Gabbard is worried that a rapid US pullout will leave the Kurds, who've played a vital role in the fight against ISIS, open to attack from Turkey. To emphasize this point, Gabbard invited a Syrian Kurdish leader to Trump's State of the Union address in early February.

Where Gabbard and other Democrats agree on foreign policy

A number of Democrats have expressed similar views to Gabbard on US troops in Syria, even if they might take issue with other aspects of her foreign policy.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in December said he thought it was a "bad idea" to send US troops to Syria "from the start" because "our troop presence in Syria is not authorized by Congress." The Connecticut senator went on to say he's still opposed to Trump's approach to pulling troops out of Syria because it leaves the Kurds in a dangerous position.

Read more: Hawaii congresswoman and combat veteran Tulsi Gabbard calls Trump 'Saudi Arabia's b----'

Additionally, Gabbard has joined her fellow Democrats in ripping into Trump over his response to the brutal killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

She went as far to say the president has become Saudi Arabia's "b----" over his refusal to go against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the US intelligence community has reportedly concluded is behind the killing. 

Like other Democrats, Gabbard also believes it was a mistake for Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and has contended it gives North Korea leverage in the president's negotiations with the rogue state on denuclearization. 

At the same time, Gabbard is strongly in favor of Trump holding dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which puts her at odds with many Democrats who believe speaking with Kim is futile and grants his oppressive regime too much legitimacy for little in return. 

Gabbard's political baggage goes beyond foreign policy

Beyond her views on foreign policy, Gabbard has also faced backlash over past remarks and stances toward the LGBTQ community, which she's since apologized for.

And she struck a nerve with some on the left when she met with Trump shortly after Election Day in 2016, leading some to question her party loyalty amid were rumors the president was considering her for US ambassador to the UN.

Gabbard, the first Hindu member of Congress in US history, also continues to face criticism over her support for Hindu nationalists linked to violence in India.

Read more: Tulsi Gabbard apologizes to LGBTQ community over past rhetoric, stances: 'I said and believed things that were wrong'

To put it another way, she's carrying a lot of baggage into this campaign. 

As Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Ahrens recently put it to Axios, "Liberals think she's too conservative, conservatives think she's too liberal, and just about everyone thinks her coziness with Bashar al-Assad is disturbing."

But, if nothing else, Gabbard has the potential to spark some interesting and heated conversations on global affairs and America's role in the world along the campaign trail - particularly if she gets the chance to debate her Democratic opponents.

Gabbard did not respond to a request for comment from INSIDER. 

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