As soon as U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) announced her intent to run for the Democratic nomination for 2020, her supporters tried to present her foreign policy credentials as progressive.
But make no mistake: Gabbard is a war hawk. Her foreign policy vision is about protecting brutal dictators and regimes from accountability for their crimes, bombing countries and killing civilians in the name of fighting terrorism, and demanding “extreme vetting” for refugees. The reality is Gabbard’s foreign policy is not far off from Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
The claim that Gabbard is bringing an anti-interventionist and anti-war vision of foreign policy to challenge both Republicans and Democrats is based on a serious propaganda campaign by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers, Russia and Iran. It started in March 2011, when Syrians inspired by the uprisings happening across their region rose up collectively demanding freedom and dignity in the face of tyranny and repression.
In response, Assad obliterated the Syrian resistance with catastrophic results. The United Nations estimated the death toll in 2016 based on 2014 data, and it has not tracked it since. There are more than five million Syrian refugees today living across the world. And Syrians in regime prisons are being massacred. In order to justify this brutality, Assad and his backers have insisted that there is a “regime change” conspiracy against him, thus dismissing the legitimacy of the Syrian people’s suffering under his family’s decades-long rule as well as the right of Syrians to protest against their oppression.
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In the middle of this brutal dictator’s revenge, Gabbard broke with House Democrats to take a secret trip to Syria in January 2017. Her trip was organized by members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, who are Assad sympathizers. Claiming this was a “fact-finding” trip, Gabbard went not to protest the torture of political prisoners in Assad’s dungeons or to demand accountability for the destruction the regime had wrought on cities across the country—but to meet with the dictator himself.
After her trip, Gabbard parroted the regime’s lies about the war. “I return to Washington, D.C., with even greater resolve to end our illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government,” she said. She used her platform to help Assad spread his propaganda, claiming there was no evidence he used chemical weapons against his people, and then dropping the issue once the evidence was presented that he, in fact, did—without ever admitting she was wrong or following through with her promise to hold him accountable once there was proof. In short, Gabbard has gaslit the already-traumatized Syrian people.
Gabbard’s support for fascist strongmen does not stop at Syria. She has met with others including Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Narendra Modi of India, and she has even been honored by right-wing pro-Israel forces at the World Values Network’s gala, which was co-hosted by influential Republican donor Sheldon Adelson.
And she was the first and only Democrat to meet with Trump after he was elected, when she was reportedly under consideration for a position in his administration. She is so loved by right-wing figures that she has received support from Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
As a Syrian American, I have experienced a range of emotions over the years. I felt joy and hope watching protest videos come out of Syria in 2011, as the barrier of fear was broken and people demanded the fall of the regime. More recently, I felt despair and anger, as the world seems to expect Syrians to accept life under the brutal regime that destroyed their country.
The emotions also include hurt, as many progressives have failed to engage with the Syrian revolution in a manner that centers its demands for freedom and dignity. There are those who cavalierly dismiss Gabbard’s positions on Syria as politics, saying that the situation is too complex for us to take a real position. I say that it is a failure of progressive politics that our bar for fighting imperialism is to support fascist strongmen over freedom and democracy. And we have to have a more comprehensive vision of what progressive foreign policy looks so that we do not de-center the voices of the affected and so that we do support the agency and struggles of people abroad.
In the case of Syria, while Gabbard claims she is concerned with the suffering of the Syrian people, in 2015 she voted for a GOP-backed bill to make it virtually impossible for Syrian and Iraqi refugees to come to the United States, before Trump came into power and ordered the Muslim Ban. And when she was asked this past week if she regretted meeting with Assad, she said no and again claimed she was fighting hard for peace.
Whenever Gabbard repeats the lies that what has been happening in Syria is about regime change, she is taking the side of Assad over Syrians. And there is absolutely nothing progressive about siding with authoritarian rulers and states over people’s movements.
Whenever Gabbard obfuscates about the use of chemical weapons by Assad, she is undermining efforts to hold the regime accountable for its war crimes. There is absolutely nothing progressive about siding with states over demands for accountability.
Whenever Gabbard says we need to be fighting terrorists in Syria, she is justifying the airstrikes of more than a dozen countries including Russia, the United States, Israel, and Turkey—airstrikes that have killed tens of thousands of people. And there is absolutely nothing progressive about siding with states bombing people over the people they are bombing.
We need progressives to articulate what U.S. foreign policy should be. The current status quo, supported by Republicans and many Democrats, of backing brutal regimes by selling them weapons and dropping more bombs as part of the so-called War on Terror—which has destroyed the lives of people across so many countries since 2001—is unacceptable. A progressive foreign policy to challenge U.S. consensus should be about connecting our movements in the United States with movements across the globe fighting against walls, police and military occupations, economic inequality, and climate destruction. But Gabbard is presenting us with more of the former rather than the latter. Her only change from the status quo is to suggest that maybe the United States work alongside Assad to fight terrorism instead of alongside, for example, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia—so switching one dictator for another.
Progressives must push for a foreign policy more in line with their principles, which means a foreign policy based on solidarity, internationalism, justice, and an unwavering commitment to demanding an end to all war by all states. With authoritarianism and fascism on the rise across the globe, we cannot afford to let Gabbard’s pro-war, pro-dictator, and anti-people power vision be claimed as progressive.