How Anti-War Really is Tulsi Gabbard?
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is one of the most controversial figures running for president in the Democratic primary. While she’s loved within certain components on the left, she’s reviled by others. The reasoning for the respective camps is roughly the same. In 2016, Gabbard resigned from her position as a Vice Chairwoman of the DNC to endorse and campaign for Bernie Sanders. For some, that exposed her as being a divisive chaos agent intent on splintering the party. For others, it was bold and an admirable stand that proved her to be a true champion of progressivism.
From that moment, she became a darling of the left who frequently floated her as a 2020 vice presidential pick for Sanders, if not at the top of the ticket herself. Many in progressive circles saw Gabbard’s strong move of sticking it to Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and the DNC as demonstrating the kind of political courage they expected to see from Elizabeth Warren, who remained silent in the primary before endorsing Hillary Clinton at the very end.
Throughout her campaign, Gabbard and her supporters have sold her as the ‘peace candidate’ who will take on the military industrial complex and ‘end the wars.’ It is undeniable that her biggest selling point among her supporters is her perceived ‘anti-war’ stance on foreign policy. Yet a closer examination of her record on foreign policy reveals there’s more complexity: she appears to be following in Obama’s footsteps on foreign policy.
It’s no secret that President Obama ended up being a huge disappointment to the anti-war movement that helped put him in office. During Obama’s final year in office, the once anti-war campaigner who won a Nobel Peace Prize his first year in office, dropped 26,171 bombs on seven different countries (Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen.) Despite campaigning on a platform of pulling out of wars, Obama started five more wars and expanded the drone program into a worldwide bombing apparatus.
In 2017, Christi Parsons and W.J. Hennigan ran a headline in the LA Times reading, “President Obama, who hoped to sow peace, instead led the nation in war.” Yet for most liberals who watch cable news, the notion that Obama escalated military conflicts around the world is a completely alien concept. After all, Obama was the one who finally negotiated the pullout of Iraq. Under Obama, the number of troops in war-zones fell from 150,000 to just 14,000 and, on top of that, he negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. By that standard, Obama succeeded in winding down wars and de-escalating tension, right? That President Obama was able to make it seem as though he was scaling down America’s war, when in reality he was actually expanding them, is the result of his Obama doctrine, which fundamentally changed the way wars are fought.
Long gone are the days when war meant two opposing sides stood across from each other in a field of battle. Today, war is fought with unmanned drones that, while small in their build, can level an entire village in seconds. Often we hear of how ‘limited precision strikes’ are preferable to sending in ground troops, as they can minimize damage. Yet during the Operation Haymaker special ops campaign in Northeast Afghanistan, one report revealed that during a five-month period between 2012–2013, 90% of all drone strikes by the U.S. killed the wrong target —meaning civilian casualties.
As Medea Benjamin of the Guardian wrote, “In 2016, U.S. special operators could be found in 70% of the world’s nations, 138 countries – a staggering jump of 130% since the days of the Bush administration.” Instead of sending ground troops into other countries, Obama sent drones and ‘special advisers.’ Obama’s entire foreign policy can be best understood as a sort of political sleight-of-hand, whereby he openly drew back on ground troop engagements, creating the aesthetic of ending wars, and then in the background began ratcheting up drone strikes, forever expanding U.S. imperialism and aggression. By removing the image of U.S. soldiers being deployed on the ground, Obama was able to shake off the anti-war movement that protested in the streets under Bush by the thousands.
While Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been very critical of the Obama administration when it comes to foreign policy throughout the years, her own perception as ‘anti-war’ benefits from Obama’s foreign policy. In fact, Gabbard’s entire foreign policy blueprint would not be possible without Obama’s. Gabbard has been clear on her stance in opposition to regime change wars. However, the qualifier ‘regime change’ does a lot of work in that formulation. Furthermore, during an interview with the Hawaii Tribune Herald, Gabbard described her views on foreign policy with the following; “when it comes to the war against terrorists, I’m a hawk. When it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I’m a dove.” Elaborating in her views on the war on terror during an appearance on NDTV, Gabbard told an interviewer that the U.S. has a responsibility to “root out evil where ever it is” to defeat “radical Islamic extremism.” One might easily mistake this as a quote from Dick Cheney.
The War on Terror is vague by design. ‘Terror’ is not a clear enemy. It’s a vague opposition that theoretically exists all over the globe and can never be fully eradicated. Such an approach on terror would necessarily lead to perpetual military intervention via drones, ground troops or otherwise, to be engaged at all times resulting in never-ending wars. Even the fallback defense of her supporters that she only supports “very limited airstrikes” against terrorists, seems to undercut their own arguments. Noted Gabbard supporter Michael Tracey (famous for alleging that he was mauled by Maxine Waters in 2017) just last month strongly condemned any attempted strike on Iran declaring that such an action would constitute an act of war. Tracey tweeted out, “Calling any prospective attack on Iran a ‘limited strike’ is ridiculous, it would’ve been an act of war, resulting in death and destruction. I’m sure if a U.S. military installation was bombed and hundreds killed, we’d all sit back and breathe a sigh of relief that it was ‘limited.’”
As it turns out, that kind of ‘limited airstrike resulting in death and destruction’ is exactly the kind of foreign policy that Gabbard has advocated for. According to a 2018 article from The Intercept, Gabbard again doubled-down on her support for drone strikes in the Middle East to fight terror. “With these terror cells, for example, yes, I still believe that the right approach to take is these quick-strike forces, surgical strikes in and out, very quickly, no long-term deployment, no long-term occupation, to get rid of the threat that exists and then get out and the very limited use of drones in those situations where our military is not able to get in without creating an unacceptable level of risk.” That hardly qualifies as “anti-war” and, as previously noted, drone strike casualties remained rampant under the Obama administration despite the same repeated claims that they would be ‘quick limited strikes.’ It is the exact same framing that Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry used in 2013 when calling on Congress to authorize the use of force in Syria. Naturally, many of the hardline anti-war activists who now support Gabbard’s campaign saw the excuses provided by Obama and John Kerry then to be inadequate, yet for some reason find no trouble with it now that Gabbard is using the same framing.
In addition to her support for drone strikes and the War on Terror, Gabbard also voted to increase the defense budget in 2018, something that her supporters deemed unforgivable when Elizabeth Warren voted to do the same thing in 2017. In fact, Gabbard has a bit of a history of voting against measures that would reduce military spending. In 2013, Gabbard voted against measures to save money on aircraft carriers, reduce funding for submarines, cut wasteful war spending, take steps toward closing Guantanamo Bay, and reducing Pentagon spending. In 2014, Gabbard voted against an amendment that would prohibit U.S. combat operations in Iraq and against an amendment that would prevent funds being used for the 2002 AUMF in Iraq. The following year, Gabbard voted against reducing the number of required aircraft carriers the Navy was required to keep, cutting nuclear missile program funding, and a continuing resolution introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to remove U.S. troops from Iraq and Syria (so much for opposing ‘counterproductive wars of regime change’). Then in 2016, Gabbard voted thrice against repealing or blocking funding for the 2001 AUMF, which is what currently gives American presidents a blank check for starting more endless wars.
For those votes and her continued support for the use of drone strikes and enthusiastic support for the War on Terror, Gabbard received a glowing puff piece in The National Review, which (along with the Weekly Standard), essentially functions as the literary epicenter for neoconservative foreign policy. Of the Hawaii congresswoman, Brendan Bordelon and Eliana Johnson write, “Tulsi Gabbard may be a Democrat, but the 33-year-old congresswoman from Hawaii has endeared herself to right-wing hawks by showing a willingness to buck the president, and her party, on foreign affairs.” In the same piece, Bordelon and Johnson note that she has also received praise from Arthur Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute (where Gabbard also was one of just 3 Democrats to attend AEI’s annual world forum in 2015) who said, “I like her thinking a lot.”
Perhaps all these votes from years past compared to her current rhetoric shows an evolution in her thoughts on foreign policy. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that it was not until 2017 that Gabbard stopped taking money from the defense industry. As the HuffPost reported, between 2012 and 2016 Gabbard accepted over $100,000 from the defence industry from the likes of BAE Systems, Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. In fact, via HuffPost, both Lockheed Martin and Boeing were two of her largest donors during the 2016 cycle. Overall, Peace Action, an activist group, which works to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons and use diplomacy to resolve international conflicts and to create a more peaceful world, gave Gabbard a lifetime score of just 51%, otherwise known as a failing grade.
Nevertheless, Gabbard continues to support the use of drone strikes around the world and continues to support the War on Terror. By using the Obama trick of moving from ground troop wars to drone wars, Gabbard has been able to sell herself as an anti-war peace candidate. Yet her advocacy of using drones to fight terrorism “wherever it is,” necessarily leads to unending warfare. Even if one grants the ‘very limited precision strikes’ justification, her own supporters, when used by anyone other than Gabbard, view that as unacceptable.
Obama also tried to sell us on ‘limited airstrikes without troops,’ and it resulted in 90% casualties. Even when given the chance to try and end or significantly reduce the wars in Iraq and Syria, Gabbard has voted against doing so. By continuing Obama’s fundamental change in the nature of war, Gabbard’s worldview will not end war, but rather continue it indefinitely. Drone warfare is still warfare and just because on the surface you’re not using physical troops to cause death and destruction around the globe does not mean that you’re actually alleviating death and destruction around the globe. You’re just making it more cost-effective and giving it better optics.