On Monday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke out forcefully at a U.N. Security Counsel meeting about what she called “Russian terror” in Syria, which has included in recent days the bombing of hospitals and the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of innocent civilians.
“Russia and the Assad regime’s merciless attacks must end,” she said. “And those behind such attacks must know that we and the international community are watching their actions, documenting their abuses, and one day, they will be held accountable.”
Compare that to the recent comments by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who met with President-elect Donald Trump Monday and is reportedly under consideration to succeed Power as the U.S. representative to the U.N. In late September, while Russian planes were committing war crimes in Aleppo, Gabbard praised the effort.
Gabbard is wrong on the facts. The United States has been bombing Jabhat al-Nusra targets, although not as often as attacking the Islamic State. Russian airstrikes have mostly targeted opposition groups that are supported by the United States as well as civilians in opposition held areas.
But what’s most unnerving is not Gabbard’s misunderstanding of the realities of the war in Syria. If she had said that while holding the post of U.N. ambassador, her defense of Russian actions and support for the Bashar al-Assad regime would make America complicit in some of the most horrendous war crimes of the modern era.
In her statement after meeting with Trump, Gabbard said she set her partisan affiliation aside for the chance to talk with the president-elect about the need to get out of the regime change business in Syria.
“I felt it important to take the opportunity to meet with the President-elect now before the drumbeats of war that neocons have been beating drag us into an escalation of the war to overthrow the Syrian government,” she said.
Gabbard told Trump about her legislation to end the semi-covert CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime and the overt Defense Department program to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. An Iraq War veteran, she often speaks out against what she calls “interventionist, regime change warfare.” She is opposed to any effort to establish no-fly zones or safe zones in Syria.
Gabbard’s aversion to U.S. military intervention is not limited to Syria. She was publicly against the United States attacking the Islamic State in Iraq in June 2014, just after the terrorist group took over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. “I do not advocate for getting involved in either Iraq or Syria,” she said on CNN, calling the Iraqi government’s battle against the Islamic State a “civil war.”
Trump shares many of Gabbard’s instincts on foreign policy, including skepticism of U.S. military intervention in Syria and distrust of the rebels, who both see as worse than the Assad regime. Both have criticized the neoconservative current in foreign policy and expressed support for working with Russia in the Middle East.
But Trump has never gone so far as to work to prevent the international community from holding the Assad regime and its partners accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Gabbard proudly has.
In March, Gabbard was one of only three lawmakers — and the only Democrat — to vote against a non-binding resolution calling out the Assad regime for war crimes and stating that the United States should support the establishment of an international tribunal to bring war criminals to justice. She tweeted that the resolution was a thinly veiled call for regime change in Syria and compared it to congressional action before the Iraq and Libya wars.
Gabbard specifically objected to language in the bill that called for additional protections for civilians inside Syria and actions to ensure access to humanitarian aid in targeted areas. In a news release, she called that “a thinly veiled attempt to use the rationale of ‘humanitarianism’ as a justification for overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad.”
On foreign policy, Trump and Gabbard represent a reaction to more than a decade of U.S. military interventions abroad that have been poorly planned, poorly executed and poorly explained to the American people. The foreign policy community must acknowledge the public’s war weariness while redoubling efforts to educate regular Americans about what the United States can and must do on the world stage to protect national interests and defend U.S. values abroad.
There are many Trump administration officials who understand this nuance: Vice President-elect Mike Pence, incoming national security advisor Michael Flynn and incoming CIA Director Mike Pompeo have all supported confronting Assad and Russia’s war crimes in Syria one way or the other. It will fall to them to explain to the country, and perhaps Trump himself, that there’s a middle ground between occupying a country, as happened in Iraq, and standing by while thousands of innocent people are slaughtered by their own government.
Despite her willingness to bash Democrats on Fox News and call for the use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” Gabbard won’t fit in that team. It’s also doubtful that the Senate would easily confirm her, considering there are bipartisan calls to stand up to Russian aggression and hold Assad accountable for his role in mass atrocities.
Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official who worked on Syria, explained Monday why defending actions that amount to war crimes in Syria is so damaging.
“The slaughter of Syrian civilians and its policy consequences are bad enough,” he wrote. “The narratives of those who unashamedly glorify the perpetrators and those who coldly dismiss defending the defenseless add enduring insult to an ongoing abomination.”
Gabbard’s plan to overtly side with Assad and Russia while they commit war crimes and crimes against humanity would reverse decades of U.S. commitment to standing up to mass atrocities. For the sake of America’s role and reputation in the world, let’s hope Trump considers that before choosing her to represent the United States on the world stage.