Representative Tulsi Gabbard has made reforming United States foreign policy, particularly ending what she calls “regime change wars” and the “new Cold War and nuclear arms race,” central to her 2020 presidential campaign. She is virtually the only presidential candidate warning of the specter of nuclear war.
At a CNN town hall at South By Southwest on March 10, Gabbard contended, “We are in a situation today where we, here in the United States and the world, are at a greater risk of nuclear catastrophe than ever before in history.”
“My commitment in fighting to end these counterproductive regime change wars is based on these experiences and my understanding [of] the cost of war and who pays the price,” Gabbard added. “Yes, it is our service members. It is our troops. It is our military families. It is the people in these countries, where these wars are waged, whose suffering ends up far worse after we launch these regime change wars.”
Yet, the establishment news media is largely uninterested in listening to Gabbard attempt to persuade voters that the U.S. should quit waging wars to overthrow governments. They hear Gabbard’s statements and think if the U.S. pursued an anti-interventionist foreign policy then dictators would be free to commit crimes against humanity and repress their people without any consequences.
Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran, could be an effective messenger for anti-interventionist policies. She was deployed in a war based on lies. So, to obstruct her from gaining supporters, the pundit class obsesses over a meeting Gabbard had with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in January 2017.
“How do you see her looking at and talking about other dictators? Is there something specific about Assad? How does she talk about authoritarian regimes in general? Does she condemn Vladimir Putin and others?” CNN anchor Brianna Keilar asked Rogin.
“Tulsi Gabbard comes from a place that in our politics that’s found on both the left and the right that believes that sovereign nations should have power over their own territory, over their citizens, that we shouldn’t be involved in these places,” Rogin answered. “I think that’s not so far from what Donald Trump believes and what Bernie Sanders believes. A lot of Americans believe that. That’s a legitimate foreign policy view. It doesn’t happen to be one I agree with, but that’s all fine.”
Rogin continued, “If we’re going to have that discussion and we’re gonna say, okay, dictators can do whatever they want in their countries, we have to realize the cost of that, and the cost of that is what they want to do often is torture and murder their people. We have to be honest about that trade-off, okay? There’s, uh, a reality, and the reality here is that when we look at a war crime or atrocity that’s happening on our watch, and we look the other way, that’s a signal to all of the other dictators, whether they’re in Saudi Arabia or you’re in Iran or you’re in Russia or you’re in North Korea, that it’s open season.”
“So there’s one position that says, oh, America should get involved and save all these people from their dictators, and then there’s one that says we shouldn’t do anything. Somewhere in the middle is where the actual policy should be. We can’t ignore mass atrocities, fight every war out there, but what Tulsi Gabbard is doing is denying the atrocities or at least denying the evidence of the atrocities,” Rogin argued. “That erodes our ability to have a fact-based, reasonable discussion about what’s going on. I also think the American people see that and perhaps they see that, that her denial of these atrocities calls into question her judgment.”
Gabbard never denied evidence of atrocities committed by Assad. She made a calculated and restrained statement. “If there is evidence that he has committed war crimes, he should be prosecuted as such,” and, “If the evidence is there, there should be accountability.”
In fact, before that, Gabbard said, “There have been reports showing that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, both by the Syrian government as well as different terrorist groups on the ground in Syria.”
Nonetheless, CNN and other media organizations ran with this narrative: Gabbard would not refer to Assad as a war criminal.
“You met Bashar al-Assad in 2017. Do you believe that Assad is a war criminal?” CNN correspondent Dana Bash asked.
Gabbard knew this would be wielded to shut down her principled opposition to U.S. involvement in the war in Syria so she did not give a yes or no answer.
Essentially, Rogin’s argument is that the U.S. government must be free to violate the sovereignty of countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, or North Korea. The U.S. government must take actions, which undermine the self-determination of citizens in these countries. It must act as the world’s policeman or else countless human rights abuses will be committed without any accountability. Or the U.S. government must liberate these people or America’s image will be tarnished.
However, the U.S. government never intervenes in a country for altruistic purposes like human rights. It intervenes to project power and advance the interests of the U.S. government, and that agenda does not always align with the cause of human rights. Sanctions, for example, always hurt innocent people no matter how they targeted against officials in power.
When the U.S. government claims it is intervening to protect human rights and promote democracy—as it is doing economically in Venezuela and has recently done militarily in Libya, Yemen, and Iraq—there are devastating consequences for the population. It may even result in the country becoming more of a failed state, which is why Gabbard is hesitant to pin labels on autocratic leaders. She understands the history of labels being exploited to build support for interventions.
Rogin additionally argued, “[Gabbard] thinks any discussion of war crimes by the Assad regime is a thinly veiled effort by neocon warmongers to justify an Iraq-style invasion. That’s what she thinks, okay. I’ve argued that’s a false choice. We don’t have to invade Syria, and I don’t know anyone who is arguing for invading Syria at all, in order to hold Assad accountable for war crimes.”
“You can do both. You can say Assad is a war criminal, and you can say a military invasion of Syria is wrong, but Tulsi Gabbard doesn’t seem to agree with that,” Rogin added.
Does anyone believe that if Gabbard said, “Yes, Assad is a war criminal,” that the conversation would end there? The next question would be, “Then why do you support the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria?” Even though troops have never been in the country for the stated purpose of challenging Assad’s regime but rather to fight the Islamic State, this question would follow.
Media outlets would rush to splash the following headline all over the internet, “Tulsi Gabbard, who met with Assad, concedes he is a war criminal.” Her answer would be wielded to further discredit her voice. So why should Gabbard indulge this game of labels played by media gatekeepers trying to enforce limits on U.S. foreign policy discussions?
To Rogin’s astounding claim that he doesn’t know anyone who is arguing for invading Syria, that is exactly what several groups did after an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in 2018. The Trump administration launched limited airstrikes as a response to the alleged attack, however, it does not appear the particular attack happened.
Dr. Assim Rahaibani, a Syrian doctor, recounted, “I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred meters from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night–but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived.”
“People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a ‘White Helmet,’ shouted, “Gas!” And a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia–not gas poisoning,” Rahaibani contended.
There was an alleged chemical weapons attack in 2017. Once again, Democrats and Republicans clamored for retaliation against Assad. But Consortium News journalist Robert Parry scrutinized what allegedly happened. “More than 100 victims of sarin exposure were taken to several area hospitals before the alleged Syrian warplane could have struck the town of Khan Sheikhoun,” Parry noted, casting doubt on whether Assad was responsible.
Although al Qaeda-affiliated groups could have been responsible, that possibility was largely uninvestigated, and Trump launched limited airstrikes to send a message to Assad.
Each alleged attack rekindled calls from opposition groups, which have urged the U.S. government to pursue regime change with military troops and resources. That is why Gabbard is careful in her answers.
As Gabbard answered when asked about the alleged 2017 chemical weapons attack, “The skepticism, and the questions that I raised, were very specific around incidents that the Trump administration was trying to use as an excuse to launch a U.S. military attack in Syria.”
“I served in a war in Iraq, a war that was launched based on lies and a war that was launched without evidence. And so the American people were duped,” Gabbard added. “As a soldier, as an American, as a member of Congress, it is my duty and my responsibility to exercise skepticism any time anyone tries to send our service members into harm’s way or use our military to go in and start a new war.”
Gabbard’s rhetoric infuriates Rogin, Keilar, and Bash because it strays from their script for what is acceptable debate on U.S. foreign policy. Their questions, and Rogin’s statements, are designed to shame her for her disloyalty to the foreign policy establishment. However, the reality is while these pundits engage in theoretical discussion on television—and use real Syrian people as props to attack dissenting politicians—Gabbard’s reservations toward war are based on actual experience and a recognition of the many times in which the U.S. meddled in countries only to face serious blowback later.