Tulsi Gabbard and the Great Foreign Policy Realignment
“There’s one main issue that is central to the rest, and that is the issue of war and peace.” Those were the words of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Democrat of Hawaii, appearing on CNN on January 12, as she threw her hat into the presidential ring.
Gabbard is one of the few Democrats in the 2020 mix who has experience as a combatant in war. Back in 2004, at the peak of fighting in Iraq, she volunteered for duty with the Hawaii National Guard as it was deployed to that country. So for her, as well as for all the other veterans of our recent wars of choice, America’s Middle East policy is more than an object for armchair strategizing.
Thus did Gabbard smile in agreement when CNN host Van Jones summarized her views as “hawk on terror, dove on regime change.” And most Americans would agree: that is, everybody wants an anti-terrorism policy, but few want more foreign wars and regime changes.
Interestingly, Gabbard’s words and related anti-war actions make her a controversial figure on today’s Left. As one Democratic activist tweeted to her nearly 27,000 followers, “She has defended and met with Assad. She sided with Putin over Obama regarding Syria.” It is true that Gabbard, a long-time critic of military intervention in Syria, went to Damascus in January 2017 to meet with Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, immediately after the 2016 election, Gabbard met even with the dreaded Donald Trump.
Some will say, of course, that this is what diplomacy is all about: one engages people in dialogue, including antagonists, foreign and domestic. For instance, during the Vietnam War, plenty of Americans traveled to North Vietnam—including, most notoriously, Jane Fonda—and while such trips caused storms on the Right, few on the Left were bothered.
Yet these days, the Left is bothered. For example, Rolling Stone, once at the vanguard of the anti-war counterculture, is now among those raining down thunder on the anti-war candidate. Its headline: “Tulsi Gabbard’s 2020 Campaign May Be Over Before It Starts.”
Yes, times do change. Back in 1972, Senator George McGovern, himself a decorated combat veteran of World War II, ran on a strongly anti-Vietnam War platform—and Rolling Stone was right there with him. In the words of one writer for the magazine, “McGovern is indisputably a man of conscience.” Another RS writer went further: “George McGovern [is] the only candidate in either party worth voting for.”
As we all know, McGovern won the Democratic nomination that year, but was then crushed by Richard Nixon in the general election. And yet dovishness survived that defeat. In the 1970s and ’80s, grassroots McGovernites took over much of the Democratic Party.
Of course, those were also the years when the Democrats had a hard time winning the presidency—even as they kept a firmer grip on Congress—and that fact was not lost on party insiders. So by 1992, when Bill Clinton won the presidential nomination, Democrats had refashioned themselves to be more hawkish (the preferred word was “muscular”).
Clinton himself didn’t have much standing as a hawk. He had, after all, avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, and had been a staffer on McGovern’s 1972 campaign. Nevertheless, from the comfort and safety of the Oval Office, he was happy to posture as aggressive.
Later, in 2002, Clinton’s wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, another ex-McGovernite, was joined by most Senate Democrats in supporting President George W. Bush’s Iraq war resolution.
Yet even as many Democrats were given over to the liberal version of neoconservatism, anti-war Democrats had hardly disappeared. For instance, Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential nomination in large part because had opposed the Iraq war. Of course, once he was in office, to the vexation of doves, he chose Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, thereby giving over much of his presidency to Clinton-style military intervention.
One unexpected consequence of this Obama-Clinton hawkishness was the 2016 intra-party insurgency of Senator Bernie Sanders, a lifelong dove who had voted “no” on that same Iraq war resolution.
Enter Gabbard. Having been elected to Congress in 2012, she resigned her post as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 so that she could explicitly support Sanders. (This at a time when the DNC was implicitly supporting Hillary Clinton.)
In other words, looking to 2020, Gabbard can rightfully claim her share of the anti-war mantle—even if Sanders chooses to run again.
Yet these days, it remains to be seen how many Democrats count themselves as anti-war. Indeed, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, just 29 percent of Democrats support withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, while 50 percent oppose. As for Afghanistan, by a one-point plurality, Democrats count themselves as hawks.
So what’s going on with the Democrats? Is dovish McGovernism dead? Part of the phenomenon, of course, is knee-jerk opposition to Trump. That is, if the president says he wants to get out of Syria and to draw down in Afghanistan, well, that’s the cue for Democrats to take the opposite position. Such is the nature of partisanship.
Yet it’s also true that the Democrats are changing. That is, many neoconservatives, having supported Bush 43 and Republicans, then turned against Trump and the GOP in 2016; they have, in effect, joined the Democratic Party. And in so doing, they’ve given the Democrats a distinctly Hillary-like—if not Bush 43-like—aspect. Most notably, MSNBC, which styles itself as the most progressive of the cable news channels, has become a haven for Bush 43 alums.
Writing in The Intercept on January 11, Glenn Greenwald summed up the new tendency in the Democratic Party:
What’s happening here is far more insidious. A core ethos of the anti-Trump #Resistance has become militarism, jingoism, and neoconservatism. Trump is frequently attacked by Democrats using longstanding Cold War scripts wielded for decades against them by the far right: Trump is insufficiently belligerent with U.S. enemies; he’s willing to allow the Bad Countries to take over by bringing home U.S. soldiers.
Will that sort of rhetorical pile-driving open up a path for Gabbard as the dovish candidate—or will it simply harden the opposition to her? We’ll have to see.
In the meantime, as the hawks have migrated to the Left, the doves have migrated to the Right. According to that same Politico/Morning Consult poll, 73 percent of Republicans support getting out of Syria: that’s a whopping 44 points more than the Democrats. And 76 percent of Republicans endorse reducing our footprint in Afghanistan.
In other words, within the GOP, the foreign policy positions of, say, Senator Rand Paul and Congressman Justin Amash—joined by, on some days, Trump himself—are in the ascendancy. Indeed, the same survey shows that the bulk of voters take dovish positions on the two foreign conflicts.
Of course, Gabbard is running for the Democratic nomination—and as we have seen, the Democratic Party now abounds with newly arrived hawks. Yet it’s still hard to believe that rank-and-file Democrats are really getting excited about foreign military adventures.
In the meantime, Gabbard is undeniably progressive on most issues. For instance, in 2017, long before Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal was a thing, Gabbard introduced legislation to eliminate fossil fuels by 2035.
In these times, of course, nobody’s crystal ball is working well. And yet it does seem fair to say this much: if Gabbard could somehow win the 2020 Democratic nomination, she’d likely be formidable in the November election. That is, she’s a woman, she’s “diverse”—she was the first Hindu elected to Congress—and she’s a combat veteran with a no-nonsense attitude toward terrorism. And yes, she’s pro-peace. These days, among Americans overall, that’s a winning hand.
Indeed, ever since 2016, when the candidacies of Trump and Sanders seemed to run parallel to each other—and in opposition to their respective party establishments—observers have wondered whether the two political insurgencies, still ongoing, might not ultimately discover that they have much in common. That is, both are more focused on domestic policy than on foreign policy; one might even say that both are more nationalist than globalist.
We might add that such a fusion is already occurring in Europe, where the anti-establishment Right and Left are finding common ground against, most immediately, the European Union—and international institutions in general. Such an alliance has already happened in Italy, where the right-leaning League and the left-leaning Five Stars, joined in an upstart coalition, have taken power in Rome.
Today, in Gabbard’s candidacy, one sees a glimmer of the same sort of possible fusion here in the United States.
Yes, it’s only a glimmer. Yet Gabbard is just 37. She has time.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.