Tulsi Gabbard on Syria, Iraq, Kamala Harris and the 2020 Primary - Rolling Stone
Home Politics Politics Features

Who’s Afraid of Tulsi Gabbard?

The lawmakers talks about the environment, war, nuclear safety, the media, pay-for-play politics, and the 2020 presidential race in a new Rolling Stone podcast

Presidential hopeful U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, smiles during a campaign stop at a brewery in Peterborough, N.H on March 22nd, 2019.

Presidential hopeful U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, smiles during a campaign stop at a brewery in Peterborough, N.H on March 22nd, 2019.

Charles Krupa/AP/Shutterstock

Welcome to ‘Useful Idiots,’ a New Rolling Stone Podcast

“It just shows,” says Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, “that launching a smear campaign is the only response to the truth.”

Gabbard, 38, burst into headlines after a July 31 Democratic Party presidential debate, when she went after California Senator Kamala Harris’s record as Attorney General of the State of California. The “smear campaign” refers to the bizarre avalanche of negative press that ensued, as reporters seemed to circle wagons around a Harris, a party favorite.

The Gabbard-Harris exchange was brief but revealing, as a window into a schism in the Democratic Party. Harris was elected Attorney General of California in 2010. She frequently sought moderate or even conservative positions on issues like criminal sentencing, drug enforcement, and prison labor. These stances were standard among Democrats back when being “tough on crime” was considered an essential component of the “electability” argument.

The Democratic electorate has changed, becoming especially concerned about mass incarceration. However, the party has not quite caught up. Gabbard exposed these divisions in the July 31 event, when she said:

“She put over 1500 people in jail for marijuana, and then laughed about it when asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”

The Detroit crowd cheered all the way through Gabbard’s next point, about Harris’ blocking the introduction of DNA evidence in a murder case. The applause unnerved Harris, who looked like someone dented her car. She’d been at 20 points in a July 2 Quinnipiac poll; after a multi-week slide that culminated with Gabbard’s attack, Harris was at 7 percent, a “distant fourth” behind Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders.

Having wounded a presumptive frontrunner backed by nearly $25 million in campaign funds, Gabbard instantly became the subject of a slew of negative leaks, tweets, and press reports. Many of these continued the appalling recent Democratic Party tradition of denouncing anything it doesn’t like as treasonous aid to foreign enemies.

Harris national press chair Ian Sams tweeted, “Yo, you love Assad!”, a reference to Gabbard’s controversial visit with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in 2017. He then tweeted a link to an insidious February 2 NBC News story, which asserted that Gabbard’s campaign was the beneficiary of Russian bots.

Harris herself meanwhile gave a sneering interview to Anderson Cooper. “This is going to sound immodest,” she said, but as a “top-tier candidate,” she could “only take what [Gabbard] says and her opinion so seriously.” She added Gabbard was an “apologist for an individual, Assad, who has murdered the people of his country like cockroaches.”

The New York Times wrote Gabbard believes the United States has “wrought horror on the world,” and that “critics have called her actions un-American.” Politico denounced Gabbard’s “Star Wars bar scene-like following” and hissed that the Daily Stormer was a supporter (Gabbard has repeatedly condemned white nationalism and sworn off their support).  On The View, co-host Sunny Hostin called Gabbard a “Trojan Horse,” while Ana Navarro viciously insinuated Gabbard, an Iraq veteran, was part of a foreign column.

“I suspect there is something going on,” said Navarro. “I think she’s a decent human being who served this country, but I’m paranoid.”

The campaign against Gabbard is part of another remarkable shift in the Democratic Party. Barack Obama’s star began to rise as a presidential candidate 12 years ago, in 2007, when asked in a debate if he’d be willing to meet with Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea.

Obama said he would, that “it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them.” He added: “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] administration — is ridiculous.” He went on to cite, as Gabbard has done, the example of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who both met with Soviet leaders.

It is true that Hillary Clinton pushed back against Obama’s position in that debate, calling it “irresponsible,” but the moment was a key in endearing Obama to liberal voters who were tired of Bush’s gunboat lunacy. The episode also helped define one of the more meaningful policy differences between Clinton and Obama. But the progressive position that meeting with dictators and/or adversaries is not only defensible but desirable no longer has any representation in major America media.

Gabbard’s position approach to war and intervention may be different from Obama’s (and especially different from president Obama, as opposed to candidate Obama), but it’s not as has been represented in most press accounts, some of which have bordered on the insane. This comically absurd passage appeared in the New York Times:

[Gabbard’s] message: Get out of foreign wars. Leave other countries alone. Not everyone wants democracy.

The method she has chosen to get this message to a wide audience, however, is through democracy — campaigning for president as a Democrat.

Forget about arguing Gabbard was a “Trojan Horse”; this piece argued that by meeting with Assad, she was somehow opposed to democracy generally, and that this was hypocritical because she is running for president in a democratic election. This is even more preposterous than the goofball right-wing talking points arguing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is hypocritical because she espoused socialism while wearing a nice suit.

Gabbard’s actual views follow logically from her experience as a soldier in the Middle East, and as a native of a state that went through a remarkable nuclear scare a year ago.

She’s not an isolationist. She’s simply opposed to bombing the crap out of, and occupying, foreign countries for no apparent positive strategic objective, beyond enriching contractors.

She is like many soldiers (and embedded reporters for that matter) who returned disillusioned from the Middle Eastern theater. Of concern: the extreme loss of life among both Americans and resident populations, and the outrageous profiteering amid abuse of foreign contract workers who are used to staff and service American bases.

In a long-ranging interview with myself and my co-host Katie Halper, for a new Rolling Stone-produced podcast, Gabbard spoke about her political evolution, Iraq, the 2018 nuclear scare in Hawaii, her decision to run for president, the confrontation with Harris, and the state of both the media and the Democratic Party.

The full interview will be released in audio and video soon. Here, in the meantime, are excerpts:

On the issue that drove her to run for the Hawaii state legislature at the age of 21:

The most populated island in the state is the island of Oahu, where I live and where I grew up. What I saw through this process as we were going around gathering signatures, getting people aware of the danger of building a landfill over a water aquifer, was how close the landfill developer was with the politicians who were greasing the wheels to get this project approved without really being the consumer protectors that they’re supposed to be.

So that, for me, was saying, “Hey, I can go out and gather signatures all day, but I want to be in that room where they’re making the decisions.” So that was what drove me to make that decision.

On her experiences in her first deployment in Iraq with a field medical unit of the Hawaii National Guard, and how they started to change her mind about the war:

We were lied to, and… we were betrayed…. This really wasn’t about going after Al-Qaeda. This wasn’t about fulfilling that mission of protecting the American people at all. It was a regime change war that was launched under the guise of national security, under the guise of humanitarianism, and, “Look at all these atrocities that this brutal dictator has done to his own people,” and done really for the benefit of corporate interests and oil.

On the military’s use of “Third Country Nationals” on bases in Iraq:

We started making friends with what were called the Third Country Nationals that were hired by KBR Halliburton to come and do things like clean the outhouses, or cook the meals in the chow hall, so we’d start to make friends with them and talk with them and go outside behind the tent, start cooking rice and sharing food, and just started asking them, “Hey, how much are you guys making? How are you being treated?”

It was outrageous to see. I mean, hearing, “Oh, I get paid $500 a month,” a month, “to work 12-hour days, six, seven days a week.” “How often do you get home to see your family?”

“Maybe once a year, but probably every other year.”

And just knowing the billions of dollars these companies are making, and really to have this indentured servitude, it just, it went to, “Well this is the military industrial complex.”

On her conclusions about the efficacy of foreign interventions:

We look at terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. They have been born out of these wars, and have been strengthened because of these wars and interventions. So it’s made us less safe, as a country. It has come at a tremendous cost to both our service members and their families…

It’s come at a tremendous cost to the American people, with the $6-plus trillion that’s been spent since 9/11 alone. Families in Flint, Michigan right now, who are still being told, “Sorry, there’s just not enough money to make sure you’ve got clean water…” We’re still spending $4 billion a month in Afghanistan.

On the underpublicized Hawaii nuclear scare of 2018, and how that motivated her to run for president:

Early on a Saturday morning, over a million people all across our state woke up to a warning that went out across cell phones, blaring on sirens, saying, “There’s a missile incoming. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

It was absolutely terrifying, terrifying, because we quickly came to realize there was no shelter. There was nowhere for our loved ones to go, and this is where we had kids on our University of Hawaii college campus sprinting in all directions. “Seek immediate shelter,” but where do you go?

On the media reaction to her exchange with Senator Kamala Harris:

It’s so ridiculous that it’s laughable. It’s so ridiculous. But it just shows, though, that launching a smear campaign is the only response that they have to the truth, which means they’re afraid of the truth because it’s real. And more and more people are seeing past the façade that they have built up for so long.

On an NBC News story on February 2, asserting that she was being supported by the “Russian propaganda machine” – a story that appeared timed to the launch of her campaign:

We were contacted about that story a few days or maybe a week before my official launch for my campaign for president, and we were told it was going to come out in the week after I was going to announce my candidacy… until all of a sudden we found out when the article was posted. I think it was two hours before I gave my speech.

On the revival of this storyline after the debate exchange with Harris:

I think it, again, it’s revealing about how pathetic it is that that’s all they can respond to when really the issue that I was raising in that debate with Senator Harris was the record that she claims to be very proud of as Attorney General, a record that she claims is about being a champion for the people… Instead of responding to that and saying why she’s so proud of this, she responds with a smear campaign.

On the general practice of accusing people you disagree with of disloyalty, beginning with those who opposed the Iraq war:

Those brave few who stood up against that vote, who stood up against the war, were accused of that. “You love brutal dictators! You love Saddam Hussein! You’re not a real patriot! You must not love America unless you support this war!” And look at how those same attacks are being lobbed against me today for being a leading voice against the regime change war that we’re continuing to wage now today in Syria…

On Democrats who say they’ve seen the light about Iraq:

If you look at a lot of politicians now, it’s easy and popular to say, “Oh, of course the Iraq War was wrong. Of course,” now that we’re almost 20 years later from launching that war.

But what about today? Where’s your courage today to stand up against the regime change efforts in Syria, and in other countries, frankly, that are happening right now?

On the state of cooperation, or lack thereof, within congress:

After the last votes of the week are done, it’s sprinting to the car and to the airport. And I get it, because we need to get back home to our constituents and to be able to spend time with folks in our district… It really just gets to, I think, that bigger problem where there’s not a will or a desire to engage with people who you may disagree with, maybe on a few things, or maybe a lot of things… This hyper-partisanship and putting party before people, putting politics before the wellbeing of the people.

On her background and how it informs her view of how to improve political dialogue in America:

Where I come from, where we find the solution is called ‘aloha’… What “Aloha” really means is, “I come to you with respect, I come to you with love and compassion and care,” and a recognition that, no matter your political beliefs, what party you belong to, your race, ethnicity, religion, orientation, all of these things that are too often used to divide us, “Aloha” is that recognition that we are all connected.

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.