Tulsi Gabbard is hailed as a progressive champion. But her views on Islam and support for far-right leaders suggest otherwise.
Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard is announced at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. disneyabc / Flickr
Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard is the new progressive darling. She’s young. She surfs. She’s a “rising star” in the Democratic Party, we’re told repeatedly. She might even win the presidency in 2020.
Much of Gabbard’s elevated stature is due to her endorsement of Bernie Sanders at the end of February 2016, a seemingly principled, politically risky stand that led her to resign as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
But that wasn’t all. Before stepping down, Gabbard earned the ire of Democratic insiders when she called for more than the paltry six debates the party had scheduled under Hillary Clinton ally Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. She continued to needle the establishment on the eve of Clinton’s nomination, and offered a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of the Democratic standard-bearer in the general election (“Given the remaining choices, like Bernie Sanders, I will be casting my vote for Hillary Clinton,” she said in August). At the Democratic National Convention, she was reportedly swamped with attention from other state delegates. “They like Tulsi because she stood up to the Democratic Party establishment,” said one.
Gabbard is also a pretty reliably progressive voice in the House on a host of domestic issues. As far back as 2012, she was calling for restoring Glass-Steagall. She opposed any cuts to Medicare or Social Security under the Obama-backed Simpson-Bowles proposal. She believes Obamacare didn’t go far enough and supports universal health care. She’s against nuclear energy, pushed to curb the NSA’s bulk collection of data, and personally protested the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Yet the starry-eyed anointment of Gabbard has obscured the more unsavory aspects of her politics — so unsavory, in fact, that White House adviser Steve Bannon has reportedly spoken well of her. From her vigorous opposition to the Iran nuclear deal to her obsession with “radical Islam” to her love for the far-right Indian leader Narendra Modi, Gabbard is far from the progressive hero many assume her to be.
Despite her progressive image today, Gabbard has conservative roots. Her father is Mike Gabbard, a former Honolulu city councilman, state senator, and high profile anti-gay activist who led a campaign against same-sex marriage in Hawaii in the 1990s. He founded the educational nonprofit Stop Promoting Homosexuality and bought himself a show on a local radio station to denounce LGBT people.
Early in her career, Gabbard took after her father. She opposed abortion and supported a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. After Honolulu Magazine emailed her father to ask about his former ties to a conservative Hare Krishna splinter group for a 2004 profile, it was Gabbard who replied angrily, accusing the magazine of “acting as a conduit for The Honolulu Weekly and other homosexual extremist supporters of Ed Case [her father’s opponent].” The same year, she used her platform as a state representative to testify against civil unions, calling the claim that they were different from same-sex marriage “dishonest, cowardly, and extremely disrespectful to the people of Hawaii,” who had voted in favor of Constitutional Amendment 2 in 1998, empowering the legislature to withhold marriage from same-sex couples.
“As Democrats, we should be representing the views of the people, not a small number of homosexual extremists,” she said at the time.
Gabbard has since done a 180, citing her military service in the Middle East as the impetus for her conversion to social liberalism.
“The contrast between our society and those in the Middle East made me realize that the difference — the reason those societies are so oppressive — is that they are essentially theocracies where the government and government leaders wield the power to both define and then enforce ‘morality,’” she wrote in a December 2011 post. “I began to realize that the positions I had held previously regarding the issues of choice and gay marriage were rooted in the same premise held by those in power in the oppressive Middle East regimes I saw.”
She effected a similar about-face on abortion, even receiving an endorsement from EMILY’S List during her 2012 congressional run despite her history of opposing reproductive rights.
And why not? Gabbard was only twenty-three when she expounded her socially conservative views, and it’s not unheard of for people’s thinking to evolve.
But suspicion of Gabbard lingers. Her state Democratic Party LGBT caucus, for instance, openly distrusts her, and backed her Democratic primary opponent in 2016. When questioned why the LGBT caucus, which had actually supported her three years earlier, had turned against her, the chairman cited two things. One was her less-than-stellar answers to a questionnaire the LGBT Caucus had sent. The other was a 2015 interview with Ozy, in which she confirmed that her personal views on gay marriage and abortion hadn’t changed, just her view on whether the government should enforce its vision of morality.
Gabbard’s campaign subsequently cancelled an interview with the LGBT Caucus, citing a number of private Facebook posts by its chairman and vice chairman in support of her primary opponent as evidence the group was “campaigning” for her. Gabbard’s press aide told Golojuch that “it unfortunately appears that your leadership is out of touch.”
This came on top of an earlier slight in 2013, when the caucus had asked Gabbard to send someone to testify at the legislative special session on same-sex marriage, only to be told that Gabbard “doesn’t get involved in state politics.” Gabbard’s Hawaiian colleagues in Congress all sent a representative to testify in support.
Gabbard does not actively work against gay rights. In fact, she’s cosponsored and supported numerous bills favoring the LGBT community during her time in Congress, from the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Still, her questionable loyalty to LGBT and abortion rights is disquieting considering her public reputation as a beacon of progressivism.
Much of the praise Gabbard receives is for her anti-interventionism. During her 2012 House campaign, she ran ads complaining about “endless war.” She has called for pulling out of Afghanistan, the longest war in US history, suggesting that the government invest the money instead into “rebuilding our own nation through long-term infrastructure projects.” She’s opposed US intervention in Syria since 2013, air strikes in Iraq, and arms sales to Saudi Arabia. She backed Sanders in the Democratic primary because of Clinton’s record of supporting “interventionist regime change wars.”
All of this has created the impression that Gabbard, unlike much of the Democratic Party, is antiwar.
Gabbard’s objections to US wars spring not from a concern for those parts of the world the US military bombs and invades, but exclusively from a concern about the Americans who fight them. As she told Truthout in 2012, her own military service in Iraq and Kuwait “changed my life completely” and revealed the “tremendous cost of war,” recounting the daily casualties and injuries to US troop she saw when she was deployed in a medical unit.
“The cost of war impacts all of us — both in the human cost and the cost that’s being felt frankly in places like Flint, Michigan, where families and children are devastated and destroyed by completely failed infrastructure because of lack of investment,” she told Glamour magazine in March last year.
This also formed the thrust of her speech at 2012’s (particularly militaristic) DNC, where she told the crowd, “As a combat veteran, I know the costs of war. The sacrifices made by our troops and our military families are immeasurable.”
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with expressing empathy for the soldiers who are sent to fight, lose limbs, and die in wars of choice launched by their political leaders. The suffering they and their families endure is heartbreaking, especially considering that many join the military because they lack any other economic opportunities. And the money spent on wars abroad would surely be better used on infrastructure at home.
But Gabbard’s almost singular focus on the damage these wars inflict domestically, and her comparative lack of focus on the carnage they wreak in the countries under attack, is troubling. It is nationalism in antiwar garb, reinforcing instead of undercutting the toxic rhetoric that treats foreigners as less deserving of dignity than Americans. (Gabbard’s brand of anti-interventionism has even received praise from former KKK grand wizard David Duke, who called for her to be named secretary of state.)
And it still produces its fair share of bloodshed. Like campaign-era Trump, Gabbard may be against miring the United States in blunderous, short-sighted conflicts that backfire, but she’s more than willing to use America’s military might to go after suspected terrorists around the world (and inevitably kill and maim civilians in the process). In the same Truthout interview, responding to a question about drones, Gabbard said that “there is a place for the use of this technology, as well as smaller, quick-strike special force teams versus tens, if not hundreds of thousands of soldiers occupying space within a country.”
It’s a point she’s repeated again and again. Responding to questions from Honolulu Civil Beat in 2012, Gabbard said that “the best way to defeat the terrorists is through strategically placed, small quick-strike special forces and drones — the strategy that took out Osama Bin Laden.” She told Fox in 2014 that she would direct “the great military that we have” to conduct “unconventional strategic precise operations to take out these terrorists wherever they are.” The same year, she told Civil Beat that military strategy must “put the safety of Americans above all else” and “utilize our highly skilled special operations forces, work with and support trusted foreign partners to seek and destroy this threat.”
“In short, when it comes to the war against terrorists, I’m a hawk,” she told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald last year. “When it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I’m a dove.”
In other words, Gabbard would continue the Obama administration’s foreign policy, which itself was a continuation (and in some ways ramping up) of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. She would keep up the drone bombing of seven Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa — perhaps even expand it — while also relying more on special operations forces, which are already raiding, assassinating, and gathering intelligence in 70 percent of the world’s countries.
Drones killed hundreds of civilians over Obama’s eight years, while special operations forces like SEAL Team 6 — which Gabbard specifically name-checked in her positive allusion to the bin Laden raid — are known for their fair share of brutality. It was “quick-strike special forces” conducting a “strategic precise operation,” to use Gabbard’s term, that a little less than four months ago killed thirty civilians in a botched raid in Yemen.
Not surprisingly, Gabbard has received plaudits from conservatives for her foreign policy stances. The National Review published a glowing profile of the congresswoman in April 2015, complete with a quote from American Enterprise Institute (AEI) president Arthur Brooks saying that he “like[s] her thinking a lot.”
Gabbard was subsequently one of three Democrats — the others being New Jersey senator Cory Booker and Maryland congressman John Delaney — who secured an invitation to AEI’s annual closed-to-the-press retreat, where she hobnobbed with the likes of Dick Cheney, Bill Kristol, Mike Pence, Rupert Murdoch, the DeVoses, and a host of other major conservative figures. At the AEI’s urging, she had earlier spoken at the Halifax International Security Forum, an annual gathering of national security wonks sponsored by Lockheed Martin, Canada’s Department of National Defence, and others.
Another reason Gabbard started receiving applause from the Right was her very public skepticism of the Iran deal.
The Obama administration may have continued much of the Bush approach to the “war on terror,” but it at least recognized the value of diplomacy. Not Gabbard, however, who told Fox News she was “cynical” toward the pact, and agreed with host Greta van Susteren that it was akin to Neville Chamberlain’s infamous Munich agreement with Hitler in 1938.
Breitbart gleefully quoted her in headlines expressing “many” and “great” concerns over the deal as it was being negotiated. On the day the agreement was finalized, she issued a statement saying, “We cannot afford to make the same mistake with Iran that was made with North Korea,” citing North Korea’s abrogation of the Agreed Framework agreement it had signed in 1994. When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his unprecedented speech to Congress in March 2015 in an attempt to torpedo the deal, Gabbard didn’t join the significant number of Democrats who boycotted the speech. She attended it.
In light of this, the fact that Gabbard received a “Champion of Freedom” award at the Jewish Values Gala — an awards ceremony held by the World Values Network, which was founded by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an enthusiastic Trump supporter — in between campaigning for Sanders is less puzzling.
On Rabbi Shmuley’s Facebook page, Gabbard’s award win is recounted in the same post that celebrates making then–Secretary of State John Kerry renounce his statements that Israeli policies contribute to terrorism against Israel. A photo from the event shows Gabbard posing with Rabbi Shmuley and Miriam Adelson, the wife of Sheldon Adelson (Adelson himself is a major Trump supporter, and happens to believe Palestinians are “a made-up people”). As her Democratic primary opponent pointed out, Gabbard has introduced Adelson-backed legislation to Congress before.
Clearly liberals and leftists who admire Gabbard’s foreign policy are mistaking her anti-interventionism for dovishness. But Gabbard’s foreign policy, while an improvement on Trump’s — and what isn’t? — would continue to foment anti-American resentment and anger around the world, with its casualties, destruction, and casual violations of national sovereignty, fueling the very “endless war” she despises.
"Unfortunate and Disturbing"
Which brings us to Gabbard’s other major red flag. Given her support for drones and special ops strikes, it’s not surprising to find that Gabbard never mentions US foreign policy as a catalyst for anti-American sentiment in regions like the Middle East, despite copious evidence to the contrary.
So what is the cause of terrorism, according to Gabbard? Islam, of course.
Before she became a progressive darling for endorsing Sanders, Gabbard became a conservative darling for relentlessly hawking the idea — later popularized by Trump — that Obama’s foreign policy was failing because he refused to use the term “Islamic extremism,” or some variation of it.
From 2014 onward, Gabbard appeared regularly on Fox News to lambast the Obama administration for avoiding the phrase. In one interview, she told the host that “the vast majority of terrorist attacks conducted around the world for over the last decade have been conducted by groups who are fueled by this radical Islamic ideology,” a statement that may be technically true due to the violence and instability plaguing Middle Eastern countries, but is wildly misleading considering that non-Muslims make up the vast, vast majority of terrorist perpetrators in both Europe and the United States.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015, Gabbard complained on Fox News that by “not using this term ‘Islamic extremism’ and clearly identifying our enemies,” the administration couldn’t “come up with a very effective strategy to defeat that enemy.” She told Neil Cavuto that “this isn’t about one specific group,” but about “this radical Islamic ideology that is fueling this,” and that it needed to be defeated “militarily and ideologically.” She characterized Obama’s refusal to “recognize” the enemy as “mind-boggling” and “troubling.”
And it wasn’t just on Fox. Gabbard took her message to any network or outlet that would have her. On CNN, she called Kerry’s refusal to use the term “unfortunate and disturbing.” In an interview with the Hill, she stressed that radical Islam was at the heart of the problem, necessitating “a simultaneous ideological strategy” to defeat terrorists.
The Right was smitten. Breitbart ran article after article trumpeting her criticisms, and former US representative Allen West praised Gabbard for “dar[ing] to challenge Obama.”
In February 2015, Gabbard had the chance to question Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Vincent Stewart. She asked him (while clearly fishing for a particular answer) about the debate over “how this ideology, how this motivation, must be identified” and what “common elements” existed among different Islamic terrorist groups, including ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram. She then went on Fox and reported that Stewart had “identified very clearly that it is this radical Islamic ideology that is fueling” these groups.
But Gabbard had heavily distorted what Stewart actually said. While he did call ISIS “a radical ideology that must be countered with a moderate ideology,” he also pointed out that the common elements that had produced such groups were “ungoverned states, weak government institution, economic instability, poverty.”
This was par for the course for Gabbard, who regularly used her TV appearances to brush off, even mock, alternative explanations for terrorism. After Kerry gave a speech at Davos stressing the importance of acknowledging the various drivers of extremism — noting that some extremist fighters “are lured by basic, material considerations” like “the promise of regular meals, a paycheck,” while others are motivated by the chance “to escape boredom” and “be lured by a false sense of success” — Gabbard tore into him on CNN.
“This is completely missing the point,” she said, calling it a “huge mistake” to think “that somehow, okay, well, look if we give them $10,000 and give them a nice place to live, that somehow they’re not going to be engaged in this fighting.” She cited Osama bin Laden as an example, a “multi-millionaire who left his mansions, went and lived in the desert because of this radical ideology.” She reappeared on CNN a month later, denying that “if we just go in and alleviate poverty, if we go in and create jobs and increase opportunity,” it would help solve the problem.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before she appeared on Bill Maher’s program, where the two bonded over their mutual distrust of “Islamic extremism” and their disagreement with Kerry’s comments. After agreeing with Maher that it was “crazy” Obama didn’t want to use the two magic words, Gabbard reiterated her point: “Give them a big house, give them a skateboard, send them on their way. You think that’s going to solve the problem? It’s not.”
Gabbard’s insistence that economic factors play no role in fostering extremism, and in fueling ISIS specifically, is belied by the facts. The group pays its recruiters thousands of dollars, and Hamas officers have explicitly outlined how the promise of money has drawn Gazans to ISIS. “Those in Syria often send pictures back home showing large banknotes to lure others out,” one officer told journalist Sarah Helm.
Gabbard’s worldview also leaves out the role that European and US governments, particularly the Reagan administration, have played in bringing hardline fundamentalists to power and prominence. Bin Laden may have been a millionaire, but he was also a CIA recruit.
Gabbard’s suspicion of Islam goes beyond rhetoric. Last year, she supported legislation that would have barred those on the no-fly list — a list that makes a mockery of due process — from buying guns. Before that, in 2014, Gabbard introduced a bill that would have halted the visa waiver program for countries whose citizens had gone to fight with extremists, claiming that the program “puts the American people in danger.” Had it passed, people from the UK, France, Germany, and many other European countries would have been forced to apply for visas before visiting the United States.
In reality, foreign-born terrorists carrying out acts of violence in the United States, particularly from visa waiver countries, is virtually nonexistent. Yet Gabbard hyped the threat. “If we do nothing to close this loophole, and allow a terrorist to carry out an attack on our homeland, the impacts will be devastating,” she warned.
Gabbard’s hardline stance carried over to the subject of refugees. She was one of forty-seven Democrats to join the House GOP in passing the SAFE Act in 2015, which would have added extra requirements to the already onerous refugee vetting process and effectively ground to a halt the admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the country. In a statement, Gabbard claimed she was voting for the bill to save the refugee program.
Two months before that, however, she had introduced a resolution calling for the United States to prioritize religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East — namely, Christians and Yezidis — when granting refugee status. “These persecuted religious minority groups must be our first priority,” she said. In essence, her position — throwing more roadblocks in front of Syrian refugees, while making an exception for Christians — is the same as that of the Trump administration, whose original refugee ban exempted “religious minorities.”
So it was little surprise that shortly after the election, Trump held talks with Gabbard — a meeting set up by Steve Bannon, a longtime admirer of the Hawaii congresswoman. Sources told the Hill at the time that Bannon “loves her” and “wants to work with her on everything,” and that “she would fit perfectly” in the administration because “she gets the foreign policy stuff, the Islamic terrorism stuff.” (Gabbard’s name was conspicuously missing from the letter 169 House Democrats signed last November calling for Trump to rescind Bannon’s appointment.)
Gabbard didn’t end up getting a job with the Trump administration, which might explain why she seems to have somewhat softened her stances recently. She came out against Trump’s refugee and travel bans, for example. And around the same time, Gabbard spoke at an event held by the group Muslims for Peace, in which she uncharacteristically spoke of “so-called religious terrorism” and affirmed that “the perpetrators of these horrific actions have no connection with the spiritual love that lies at the heart of all religions.”
Coincidentally, Gabbard used the speech to finally explain her long-running refrain that the US must defeat extremism “ideologically.” The answer, according to Gabbard, is confronting such ideologies with “a consciousness of love.” While promoting peace, love, and respect is undeniably admirable, it’s hard to see why Gabbard views the vague concept of “confronting” extremism with “love” as less wishy washy than the idea of preventing terrorism by fighting poverty and political oppression in war-torn countries.
Friends Like These
As her flirtation with Trump and Bannon shows, Gabbard’s hardline stance on terrorism and Islam tends to leave her with questionable friends.
To her credit, Gabbard has supported legislation to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, citing both the carnage the Saudis were raining down on innocent civilians in Yemen and the Saudis’ spread of Wahhabism, a reactionary form of Islam.
But Gabbard is less discerning when autocrats aren’t motivated by “radical Islam.” In November 2015, she traveled to Egypt as part of a congressional delegation and met Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, part of an effort to strengthen US-Egypt relations. Sisi may be a blood-soaked tyrant who’s killed hundreds of Egyptians and imprisoned many thousands more, but as Gabbard made clear at the time, he’s tough where it counts.
“President el-Sisi has 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,” Gabbard said, urging US political leaders to “recognize President el-Sisi and his leadership” and “stand with him in this fight against . . . Islamic extremists.” Some of the Sisi government’s fantastic accomplishments in this fight include killing a group of Mexican tourists and quite possibly torturing and murdering an Italian PhD student.
But perhaps Gabbard’s closest friend on the world stage is India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi. It’s an ideal match in many respects — not because the two happen to share a faith (Gabbard is the first Hindu American in Congress), but because they both harbor noxious attitudes toward Muslims.
Modi began his career as an activist in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, nationalist organization that stokes anti-Muslim sentiment in the country and has been banned four separate times (one of its members assassinated Gandhi over accusations he was appeasing Muslims). While Modi eventually left the RSS for his current party, the BJP, the two are heavily connected: the RSS mobilized to get Modi elected, and several BJP officials used to be members of the RSS.
Shortly after September 11, Modi claimed on TV that Islam had tried “to put its flag in the whole world” since the fourteenth century and that “the situation today is the result of that.” As he campaigned for election in 2014, he threatened to deport undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh (who are mostly Muslim), calling them “infiltrators.”
But most appalling was his role in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat, which left one thousand people dead, nearly eight hundred of whom were Muslims. Modi was the state’s chief minister at the time and has long been accused of allowing the riots to happen, with a former senior police officer testifying in 2011 that Modi said the night before the riots that Muslims needed to be taught a lesson.
Despite all of this, Gabbard has been one of Modi’s most prominent boosters in the US. “He is a leader whose example and dedication to the people he serves should be an inspiration to elected officials everywhere,” she said of Modi in 2014.
For about a decade, the United States refused to give Modi a visa to travel to the US in light of his involvement in the Gujarat riots. For Gabbard, this was a “great blunder,” and she later told the press that “there was a lot of misinformation that surrounded the event in 2002.” She personally congratulated Modi on his 2014 election, and was later involved in organizing his first trip to the US. She also met two BJP leaders who had visited the United States beforehand, and spoke alongside them at an event in Atlanta.
When a congressional panel was held in April 2014 on “the plight of religious minorities in India,” with witnesses testifying about the mistreatment of Muslims, Gabbard said she didn’t “believe the time of this hearing is a coincidence” and that it aimed to “influence the outcome of India’s national elections.” Gabbard voted against House Resolution 417, which criticized India’s record on religious violence and called for specific measures to guarantee religious freedom in the country, explaining that its passage wouldn’t help US-India relations. Yet two years later, Gabbard introduced a similar resolution that covered neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh, saying she was “particularly concerned over issues of religious freedom, and specifically, attacks against minority Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and others” in the country.
There are likely any number of motivations for Gabbard’s steadfast defense of Modi and conditions in India, but similar to her cozying up with Sisi, she specifically cited India’s role as a partner in the war against Islamic terrorists. “For many reasons — not the least of which is the war against terrorists — the relationship between India and America is very important,” she told Quartz last March. A year earlier, while visiting India and meeting with Modi, she told the press that “in order to defeat [terrorism], we (India and the US) will have to work together.”
Beyond the PR
Tulsi Gabbard isn’t all bad. In several areas, she’s further to the left than a number of mainstream Democrats. But her bucking of the Democratic Party establishment, her support from Sanders, and her consistent opposition to regime change has distracted many from the more disquieting parts of her record.
If the glowing profiles of Gabbard are right, she stands poised to become one of the leaders of the Democratic Party. If so, progressives will have to drop any starry-eyed admiration, and take a good, hard, honest look at who Tulsi Gabbard really is.
Her rhetoric about Islam wouldn’t be out of place on a Republican debate stage. Her anti-interventionism is shot through with a pernicious nationalism. Her support for Modi legitimizes a leader with a record of enabling anti-Muslim brutality.
Sanders’s seal of approval shouldn’t be taken as the final word on Tulsi Gabbard. After all, should we really champion a presidential candidate who could easily have been slotted into a Trump cabinet?
Branko Marcetic is an editorial assistant at Jacobin. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.