Ugly Attacks on Tulsi Gabbard Distract From Real Critiques of American Foreign Policy

Back in 2007, Texas Representative Ron Paul stirred up a hornet’s nest when he argued that Muslim terrorists had set their sights on the United States because of the many decades of interventionism the U.S. had practiced in the Middle East.

“They attack us because we’ve been over there,” he argued during a Republican primary debate. “We’ve been bombing Iraq for ten years. We’ve been in the Middle East — I think Reagan was right. We don’t understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics. So, right now we’re building an embassy in Iraq that’s bigger than the Vatican. We’re building fourteen permanent bases. What would we say here if China was doing this in our country or in the Gulf of Mexico? We would be objecting. We need to look at what we do from the perspective of what would happen if somebody else did it to us.”

Paul provided dozens of variations of this same argument over the course of his campaign, eliciting intense pushback from his Republican rivals every time he raised the issue. The notion that American foreign policy might have been one of the factors that inspired the 9/11 attacks was downright heretical in right-wing circles. To many on the left, though, Paul was something of a novelty. They had never encountered a Republican politician bold enough to publicly challenge neoconservative orthodoxy as confidently as Paul did.

Paul’s endorsement of non-interventionism was hardly notable. He’s a libertarian, and the idea that the United States should refrain from behaving as the world’s policeman has been a central tenet in libertarian thought for as long as the Libertarian Party itself has existed. To discredit his position, his critics habitually conflated his brand of non-interventionism with isolationism. The latter, they understood, sounded archaic and retrogressive. They knew the average voter would neither understand nor take the time to try to understand the distinctions between the two philosophies. And whenever Paul would draw on historical accounts to support his anti-interventionist position — his go-to example was how the 1953 U.S.-backed coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh inadvertently set the stage for the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini — the rest of the Republican field would resort to obscurantist tactics to try and reframe his argument as fundamentally anti-American.

It’s slightly amusing and undeniably ironic that, just eight years later, something very similar to Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy would become a key plank in President-elect Donald Trump’s political platform.

The case for non-interventionism has always struck me as a little too simple, and foreign affairs are rarely ever simple. Yes, our government’s predilection for sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong has often backfired, but Paul’s argument rests on the unprovable assumption that both the U.S. and the world as a whole would be much better off if the former had always minded its own business regardless of the circumstances. Considering the expansionist ambitions of foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin and the growing economic influence of authoritarian regimes like the one in Beijing, I’m not totally convinced that assumption is valid. Nevertheless, Paul’s voice was an important and necessary one in the ’07 Republican debates. The GOP had been besieged by neoconservative thought for far too long, paving the way for a very bloody, very costly, and very unnecessary war in Iraq, a war which we would later discover had created a void that ISIS would be all too happy to fill. Republicans needed one of their own to step up and smack a little sense into their party. They needed someone who could speak their language to explain to them how preposterously aggressive and ethically dubious the neoconservative approach to geopolitics had become. 

Democratic presidential contender and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard now finds herself in a similar position, though the accusations being leveled against her feel much weightier than the ones Paul had to wrestle with. When Paul’s critics accused him of being a kook or a conspiracy theorist, they were mostly questioning his competency. When Gabbard’s critics insinuate that she might be working on behalf of a hostile Russian government, they’re going a step further by not just questioning her competency, but also indicting her character, integrity, and commitment to her country. 

Gabbard’s brand of quasi-non-interventionism is perfectly coherent and easy to defend; she believes America should act in its own best interests, which includes avoiding costly “regime change wars” while simultaneously snuffing out radical Islamic terrorism wherever it rears its ugly head. This isn’t some profoundly original or revolutionary approach to geopolitics and national security; it’s an (arguably) pragmatic philosophy grounded in the notion that nations should do what is necessary to protect themselves from their legitimate enemies without stepping on other governments’ toes. But as pragmatic as it may sound, it’s also a philosophy that tends to generate a fair bit of controversy, just as it did when Paul advocated for the adoption of a similar philosophy in ’07. 

As an American, I do believe that my government has an obligation to place the interests of its own citizens ahead of the interests of foreign nations. But I also believe that my government’s policies must be justifiable within a Western moral framework that opposes oppression, persecution, and genocide, and I’m not sure whether Gabbard’s non-interventionist policy fits within that framework. Her relationships with seedy authoritarian figures like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have raised quite a few eyebrows, and her hawkish stance on Islamic terrorism has given many liberals and progressives pause. Does her conception of a sensible non-interventionist foreign policy necessitate friendly relations with every oppressive government that sides with us against radical Islam and refrains from encroaching on our sphere of influence? If the answer is yes, I don’t think I can get behind that policy.

I understand and appreciate the essential truth that undergirds non-interventionism — that societies need to be allowed to evolve organically, on their own terms, and that foreign intervention is almost always detrimental to that process. And I don’t dispute that, no matter her motivation, Gabbard’s foreign policy is calibrated to that truth. That is, perhaps, why part of me finds her platform appealing. As Ron Paul correctly proclaimed on more than one occasion, there are “unintended consequences” that often come back to haunt both the purveyors and the victims of interventionist activities. Gabbard has proposed a foreign policy that mostly precludes such consequences.

There’s an important conversation to be had about the merits of non-interventionism, a conversation centering on the risks inherent in overextending our military forces; the ethical implications of interfering in the affairs of other nations, especially when it involves propping up unelected dictators; the economic costs associated with acting as the world’s policeman; and the potential ramifications of failing to respond to atrocities committed by tyrannical governments. Instead, we’re having a conversation about whether Tulsi Gabbard is a puppet of Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime in Moscow, and I just can’t wrap my head around that. 

Gabbard has served in the Hawaii Army National Guard for more than 16 years. She’s been deployed twice to the Middle East, including a 12-month tour in Iraq. Shortly after being elected to her first term in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2013, she was entrusted with the position of vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, a position which she held until she resigned in 2016 to endorse Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. As far as I’m aware, she’s never run afoul of the law or been accused of anything remotely scandalous during her tenure in Congress, and the most serious trouble she’s gotten into while serving in the Army National Guard was when her campaign published some materials that featured her in uniform. Yet I’m supposed to believe that this decorated combat veteran and accomplished congresswoman who has devoted nearly her entire adult life to dutifully serving her country is Vladimir Putin’s puppet? I’m not buying it. Not without proof. And to be clear, there isn’t a shred of proof to support that claim.

The attacks on Gabbard are eerily similar to the types of attacks Republicans launched against another 2008 presidential candidate who was often just as critical of neoconservative foreign policy as the aforementioned Ron Paul: Democratic Senator Barack Obama. After Obama suggested that the United States should engage in diplomatic talks with the likes of Syria, Iran, and North Korea, President Bush went before the Israeli Knesset and appeared to imply that Obama’s policy on dealing with “terrorists and radicals” was a policy of “appeasement.” The White House denied that Bush was referring to Obama, but the damage was done. Conservative talk show hosts and commentators echoed Bush’s concerns, and Obama spent much of the rest of his campaign fighting back against the manufactured perception that he would be too soft on dictators, tyrants, and state sponsors of terrorism. 

Back then, Democrats didn’t see Russian ghosts everywhere they looked, so they never hesitated to rally around Obama and defend him against the conservative assault on his willingness to talk to America’s rivals. Gabbard, too, has had her defenders in the Democratic Party, but her left-wing detractors have pushed the Tulsi-is-a-Russian-asset narrative with almost as much vigor and determination as Republicans displayed when they were pushing a similar narrative about Obama and his approach to dealing with hostile foreign regimes. 

In all likelihood, Gabbard’s non-interventionism is inspired not by a budding loyalty to Russia, but by her experiences in the Middle East. She signed up to defend her country against the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, not to topple foreign regimes that had nothing to do with 9/11 or help the West manipulate the outcomes of Middle Eastern political affairs. But that’s precisely what the West — especially the United States — did before 9/11 and has continued doing since. The Iraq War is the most commonly cited example of Western interventionism gone awry, but there are plenty more to choose from. The 2011 intervention in Libya is another recent example, as it set the stage for the emergence of a thriving Libyan slave market. President Obama himself has previously admitted that his failure “to plan for the day after” was his worst mistake as president

For better or worse, Gabbard wants to initiate what she considers to be a long overdue course correction to American foreign policy that she believes will save American lives and American dollars without sacrificing American security in the process. If that pleases Russia, it’s easy to understand why. The United States gets so much flack for its past interventionist excursions that we sometimes forget that Russia, too, has a long history of broadening its geopolitical influence by imposing its will on vulnerable foreign nations. But the latter’s foray into Crimea in 2014 helped to remind the world that the Russian appetite for expansionism is as healthy as it’s ever been. A United States government restrained by Gabbard’s non-interventionist platform could be a boon to Putin’s agenda. Under a President Tulsi Gabbard, it’s unclear whether the U.S. would make any serious attempts to obstruct Russian efforts to, say, seize a small chunk of a non-NATO European country

If progressive critiques of Gabbard’s foreign policy were grounded in concerns about how that policy could embolden Putin to more aggressively pursue his geopolitical goals, neither Gabbard nor her supporters could claim to be the victims of an unwarranted smear campaign. Policy is always fair game, especially when said policy has the potential to empower a dangerous foe. That said, the ongoing assaults on Gabbard’s character have most definitely crossed a line. She’s not beyond reproach, and her politics deserve as much scrutiny as the politics of every other candidate in the race, but insinuations that she doesn’t have America’s best interests at heart are simply beyond the pale. Unless someone manages to unearth sufficient evidence to the contrary, there is no good reason to assume that she is anything other than a dedicated patriot with a sincere desire to fulfill the oath she took when she signed up to fight for her country back in 2003.

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