Tulsi Gabbard Isn’t a Russian Asset. It’s More Complicated Than That.

October 23, 2019

The Nation's Jeet Heer discusses Hillary Clinton's recent remarks toward Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Why do anti-war activists and the right wing seem to love her?

The Nation's Jeet Heer discusses Hillary Clinton's recent remarks toward Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Why do anti-war activists and the right wing seem to love her?


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Hillary Clinton has now accused both Green presidential candidate Jill Stein and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of being Russian assets. Now, there’s a long history in this country of being accused of being a Russian asset. There’s a history that goes back to unions and black activists in this country in the 30s, again going after people in the 1950s with the House Un-American Activities Committee, to anti-war and black activists in the 60s, working on behalf of the Russians, they said. The Soviet Union is what it was called back then. So now it’s back. And Tulsi Gabbard is now an asset of the Russians to ensure a Trump victory in 2020. Okay, so the Russians may be undermining some things. I mean, they learned it from us. Everybody does it. That’s not the case here. But asset? Agents? What’s really going on here? Many on the left see Tulsi Gabbard as an anti-war candidate. But the whole thing is much more nuanced than that. While Hillary Clinton once again is showing why she lost, Tulsi is not a simple anti-war candidate.

A lot of ground to cover here in this short time to go through what all this means, which is why we’re about to talk with Jeet Heer, National Correspondent of The Nation, who just wrote the article, “The Real Trouble with Tulsi” that appeared in a recent Nation online. And Jeet, welcome back. Good to have you with us.

JEET HEER: Good to be here.

MARC STEINER: So let’s just start with former Secretary of State and former Senator Hillary Clinton, former presidential candidate, and what she did here and the attacks she made. It kind of took a lot of people by surprise. She just kind of blurted that out on this radio show. I mean, what do you think that was about?

JEET HEER: I thought you were going to play the audio. So yeah, no, it is really surprising. I wasn’t completely taken by surprise because we’ve heard rumblings of this from Clinton’s circle. The New York Times had an article about Gabbard just a few days before the audio which quoted a Clinton advisor saying very similar things. But it is a very shocking thing for the former presidential candidate, nominee for her party, former Secretary of State, to say that an elected congresswoman is a Russian asset.

The first thing to say is that there’s no evidence of this. This is a completely fanciful, speculative statement. But also, the whole term “Russian asset,” as you indicated, is very problematic. It’s kind of a CIA term. It’s a term coming out of the world of espionage. And it’s designed to kind of smear people. It’s a weaselly, slippery term because it creates ambiguity between people who are consciously agents of a foreign power and people who are assisted by a foreign power unknowingly. And in this case, the idea of an asset extends to, well, if you get retweeted by Russian bots, you’re an asset. Well, we can’t control who we get retweeted by. So it’s a very, very dubious statement.

MARC STEINER: I mean, and when you look at this, and the history, as I alluded to in the beginning of the program, is that if you were a union activist or a radical activist in the 30s, especially if you were a black radical activist in the 30s, you were accused of being a Russian agent, all the people called up before HUAC whose lives were destroyed. If you opposed the Vietnam War, if you supported civil rights in the beginning, you were a communist. And that meant you were a Russian asset, or a Soviet asset in those days. So using this in this way is hearkening back to a different time, and that has not left us yet, which is part of the problem here.

JEET HEER: Yeah, no, absolutely. As I said, it comes out of the CIA and the sort of Cold War mentality, and in some ways is maybe a sign that people who were formed by the Cold War, people in the espionage world, and people like Hillary Clinton, are having a hard time adapting to this new world and they’re bringing the terminology that they’re used to. And I mean, it’s very bad. I’ll give you one example of why it’s bad from my own magazine, which was we had a writer, a great journalist, I. F. Stone. And there were people who accused him of being a Russian asset. But their evidence of that was that he would meet with the Russian ambassador as part of his journalistic duties and would meet with other Russian people to gather information. So basically, you’re criminalizing or trying to cast as treason the basic act of journalism.

MARC STEINER: And I mean, and I knew Izzy. He was a mentor of mine when I was at the Washington Free Press back in the 60s. And yeah, I mean, to call him a Russian asset is almost as absurd as this.

JEET HEER: Yes.

MARC STEINER: Let’s take a look though here, this is a response that Tulsi Gabbard tweeted out. And we’ll also look at John Nichols’ writing about this as well. So Tulsi tweets out: “Great. Thank you to Hillary Clinton. You, the queen of warmongers, the embodiment of corruption, the personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain. From the day I announced my candidacy,” blah, blah, blah. But then, your colleague and our friend, John Nichols, tweets out something really interesting. Let’s look at this and talk about this. He said: “Yesterday, Tulsi Gabbard had 606,000 Twitter followers. She’ll finish today with 656,000 followers. That’s a startling jump in interest in her candidacy. And there’s a fair bet to be made that this Tulsi surge is not finished. It’s starting to look like Clinton did her a favor.” So yeah, I mean, this is backfiring in many ways on Hillary Clinton and the centrist Democrats in their attack on Tulsi.

JEET HEER: Yeah, I don’t know. It depends on what Clinton was up to, to see if it’s backfiring. But it’s definitely elevated Tulsi Gabbard. And in that sense, Hillary Clinton is Tulsi Gabbard’s asset. And if Tulsi Gabbard is a Russian asset, then Hillary Clinton is a Russian asset by two degrees. But I think this is a very typical Clinton behavior though. And it really has roots in how they see politics. In 2015, DNC staffers prepared a memo where they said, “The best way forward is to elevate the fringe candidates of the Republican Party,” and they named Ben Carson, and they named Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz. And so, the idea was that if you elevate fringe figures, then you can present yourself as the more moderate alternative. And as we know, that worked out wonderfully well.

MARC STEINER: So let’s talk about the heart of what you’re writing about. And I think that this is something… I’ve received different emails from people who watch The Real News, upset we didn’t have Tulsi on more. And I look forward to interviewing Tulsi about all this as well, directly. But to really wrestle with her record and what she’s really done and said, let’s take this back for a minute. Let’s look at something that has happened with her interaction with the Indian Prime Minister, Modi, and also with Sisi when she went there. And what was interesting to see is that–Murtaza Mohammad Hussain tweeted this, he said: “If you want to know why Tulsi Gabbard is accused of being a supporter of murderous dictators who fit her ideology rather than a simple peacenik reminder she did a solidarity visit to Sisi after he massacred 800 protesters in one day. Don’t think Egypt was facing ‘regime change.'” So let’s talk a bit about that. There are some contradictions here. I’ll go back to something you wrote in your article in a moment as well. She’s a complex character when it comes to this. I mean, it’s not so simple.

JEET HEER: Yeah. I think to understand Gabbard, you have to understand the war on terror, which has been going on for long enough that there are soldiers serving in Afghanistan who were born after 9/11. And Gabbard has a very interesting background in Hawaii, belonged to a group that’s kind of an offshoot of Hare Krishna. But after 2004, she joined the military and she served in Iraq in sort of a combat zone. And I think a lot of her politics is the sort of frustration that many soldiers have with the war on terror, with especially the sort of boots on the ground strategy and the regime change strategy. But her alternative is very similar to Trump. It’s like “more rubble, less trouble.” What you do instead of Bush-style regime change, or Obama-style regime change, is you support the hard line dictators in the region, use drones and targeted assassinations. And so it’s not something that I think the left should be very comfortable with. She calls herself a “hawk,” and she is a hawk.

MARC STEINER: Well, I mean, in your article, you wrote that… You had this quote here in your article. You said, “‘In short, when it comes to the war against terrorists, I’m a hawk,’ Gabbard told a newspaper in 2018. ‘And when it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I’m a dove.’ And as Marcetic notes …” you write, this fellow who wrote in Jacobin that you quote, “‘Gabbard is offering nationalism in anti-war garb, reinforcing instead of undercutting the toxic rhetoric that treats foreigners as less deserving of dignity than Americans.'” So let’s wrestle with that for a moment. I mean, how real do you think that is? And it’s not an uncommon thing to say we don’t want to end up overthrowing governments and starting wars, but how do you respond to terrorism? So this is something Americans wrestle with as well. And she may, in some senses, be hitting a pulse of what a lot of Americans are confused about and wrestling with.

JEET HEER: That’s right. And I think, as I said, she’s a product of the war on terror. But the solution that she’s come to, I think, is a very problematic solution. It is very Trump-like. And I think this is one reason why Trump has had some success. But we have to really challenge this politics that the best way is not to do regime change, but to just support really terrible dictators and to sort of do selective counter-terrorism. I think what gets left out of the equation, what gets left out of her equation is diplomacy. And that’s what someone like Bernie Sanders offers. Bernie Sanders has a more sort of social democratic foreign policy. And he recognizes we have to actually really get at some of the root causes of these problems. So we have to actually have diplomacy to deal with Israel, Palestine, and we have to have democracy promotion that’s not based on sending in the Marines, but actually using diplomatic resources.

MARC STEINER: So let me conclude with this. I mean, the Tulsi Gabbard question; she’s a very interesting politician, she has ideas that are across the board. And just to add, when she was a kid, she was kind of born into this kind of… She didn’t join it. I mean, her father was part of it, and she was kind of in it and has kind of since distanced herself from all of that. But at the same time, when Trump was elected, it appeared she was seriously considering joining his administration. Steve Bannon liked her. And you’ve seen articles recently about how a lot of people on the right and libertarians really think a lot of her. So I mean, she, in some ways, reminds me of how a lot of people–as I said earlier–are struggling with how to define the future. And she has that kind of confused thing. That’s why people, I think, are not quite sure where she stands or what she really stands for.

JEET HEER: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right, that she’s… And I think she’s always had this sort of bipartisan instinct all along, which is not a terrible instinct, by any means. But I think it becomes terrible when the person you want to link up with is Trump. And she has been more Trump-curious than any other major Democrat. And I think that, in some ways, the end point of the solutions that she’s coming to, precisely because she rejects diplomacy, are kind of like Trump solutions. And so it’s not surprising that a lot of Republicans like her. And I think we have to be very … It’s not enough to call yourself “anti-war,” you actually have to have positions that will lead to a more peaceful world. And I don’t see that with her. So even though I think Hillary Clinton is terrible for bringing up this false accusation of being a Russian asset, there are other good reasons to criticize Tulsi Gabbard.

MARC STEINER: That’s why I loved your article so much. It was really very well-balanced and really an interesting view that I think more people should read. And we’ll connect to that on our website. And Jeet Heer, I want to thank you once again for joining us here on The Real News. I enjoy your writing because it always makes us think. And have a great rest of the day.

JEET HEER: Always great to be here, a lovely conversation.

MARC STEINER: Take care. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. If you like Tulsi, write to me and I’ll write you back, and we’ll go back and forth about it. Take care.