Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) just did something few members of Congress dare to do these days: Go to Syria and meet with the man the United States has actively been trying to oust, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Besides the fact a sitting member of Congress met with the leader of a nation that Washington has no diplomatic relations with — a man whom former president Barack Obama described as the main roadblock to peace in Syria — the timing of Gabbard's trip is perplexing.
Consider: President Trump has not yet signaled whether he plans to shift U.S. policy in Syria, nor how. Gabbard raised eyebrows in Washington when she met with Trump in November to share her view that the United States should stop arming and assisting rebels, a policy that candidate Trump expressed support for. Then, the week Trump is inaugurated, we find out one of the few Democrats to knowingly talk foreign policy with Trump is in Syria potentially meeting with its president.
Gabbard returned this week and said the seven-day trip — which also featured former Ohio congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich — was led and paid for by the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Ohio. It's common for lawmakers to take trips abroad via advocacy groups but not common for them to meet with foreign leaders without explicit permission from the president.
Melissa Dalton, a Middle East defense expert now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies described Gabbard's trip as “odd” and “premature.” She said it does not appear to be connected to any broader policy deliberations about how to approach Syria. If that's the case, Dalton warned that Gabbard risks undermining those deliberations by taking things into her own hands.
“High-level U.S. contact with Assad should be conducted in the context of a broader strategy,” Dalton said, “or it can easily send the wrong message that the U.S. government supports Assad or condones the brutal tactics Assad has used against his own people.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a military veteran, had much harsher words for Gabbard's trip:
Gabbard said the meeting with Assad was unplanned but that she couldn't pass up the opportunity. In an interview Wednesday with CNN's Jake Tapper, she elaborated:
“When the opportunity arose to meet with him, I did so because I felt it was important that if we profess to indeed care about the Syrian people … then we've got to be able to meet with anyone that we need to if there's a possibility we could achieve peace. And that's exactly what we talked about.”
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) January 25, 2017
“The lives of millions of Syrians have been destroyed by a horrific war that has killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions to flee their homeland,” she wrote in an op-ed in the Honolulu Star Advertiser. “I went there last week to see and hear directly from the Syrian people.”
Gabbard framed this as a “fact-finding” mission, but any trip to a war-torn country by a sitting member of Congress carries with it political implications, Dalton said: “It seems to be getting out ahead of what I would anticipate to be a process, both on the Hill and in the administration, to review whether our current approach is working.”
Perhaps that's exactly what Gabbard intended with this trip — to get out ahead of the Trump administration. In the absence of any concrete strategy from them about whether to continue to arm Syrian rebels trying to topple Assad or leave Assad alone, it's possible Gabbard saw room for persuasion.
Gabbard has introduced a bill that would make it a crime for the U.S. government to provide assistance, inadvertently or not, to “terrorists” or any country that has given assistance to terrorists.
Her extreme caution of getting involved militarily in Syria tracks with the hesitancy Trump and his advisers have shown for continuing to arm rebels, although Trump seems much more focused on the danger he perceives Syrian refugees could bring to the country.
Gabbard, twice deployed in the Middle East during the Iraq War, has a worldview that boils down to two seemingly opposing views:
1. Get tough on terrorists: She's criticized Obama for not using the term “Islam” to describe the Islamic State, at times sounding more like a hawkish Republican than a progressive.
2. Largely get out of the Middle East: She has derided U.S. aid to rebels in Syria as “regime change,” at times sounding more like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose presidential candidacy she endorsed at the price of resigning her leadership spot at the Democratic National Committee.
It's also possible that if Gabbard were in a position to influence the Trump administration, she could have some street cred by being one of the few decision-makers to have recently been to Syria.
The list of lawmakers who have been to Syria since it broke out in civil war five years ago is an exclusive club. One of the last high-profile trips there was taken by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2013. He went to assess how opposition groups supported by the U.S.-led coalition were faring and, in stark contrast to Gabbard, was chastised by the Assad regime for being there.
As I wrote in November as Gabbard and Trump met, Gabbard could be using her star power in the Republican Party to open lines of communication with the next president of the United States in a way few other Democrats can. She is a wild card who has given her party as many headaches in her shortish time on the national stage as she has blessings, a Democrat that Republicans love to cheer on.
But Gabbard and Trump have at least one striking policy disagreement on Syria. She released a statement early Thursday urging the president not to ban Syrian refugees, as an executive order awaiting Trump's signature proposes.