Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), an Iraq War veteran who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, forcefully defended her foreign policy positions on Thursday, dismissing “neocon war hawks” who have supported increased U.S. military intervention abroad and encouraging engagement with Russia and Syria on counterterrorism efforts.
Those views have drawn attention to Gabbard’s White House bid from antiwar voters, from war-weary liberals to libertarian conservatives who are unhappy with the GOP establishment. They have also been criticized by some Democrats, who believe the United States should take a hard line on Russia and on Syria, which has used chemical weapons in the country’s eight-year conflict and committed human-rights abuses, according to watchdog groups and the United Nations.
Gabbard, in an interview at a Washington Post Live event, did not waver from positions that have put her outside of the mainstream of her party. She argued that the United States could “perhaps” work with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming years to counter the rise of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters and other terrorists in the Middle East.
“There are others within the region who share that objective. I think that we should be working with them,” Gabbard said.
Gabbard met with Assad in January 2017, putting her at odds with leaders in both parties who have refused to meet with the Syrian leader in the wake of reports of his regime’s use of chemical weapons. Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean called the meeting a “disgrace.”
When asked Thursday whether she accepts that Assad used chemical weapons, Gabbard said, “That has been reported” and called it a “serious issue.” But, she claimed, there is “still more information coming out” from U.N.-affiliated investigations and she is waiting for those probes to finish.
Reuters reported this week that Syrian officials have blocked investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is working with the U.N., from entering the country.
Gabbard said Putin and Russia should not be shunned as another possible partner in the region, despite Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and intelligence leaders concluding that Russia is planning to attempt to intervene in the 2020 race with disinformation campaigns.
“To defeat this shared threat like al-Qaeda and ISIS, I think we should be working with others, whether it’s Russia or other countries who share the same concern,” Gabbard said, warning against further stoking the “ever-escalating tensions” that leave the United States on “the brink of nuclear war.”
Gabbard, 38, along with Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, is one of three military veterans seeking the Democratic nomination. Moulton and Buttigieg have accused President Trump of faking a disability to avoid serving in Vietnam decades ago.
The Hawaii Democrat, who as an Army National Guard veteran twice deployed to the Middle East, declined to attack Trump by name on Thursday over Vietnam or comment on his four student deferments and one medical disqualification. But she said it is “unfortunate” that some people “found a way to get out of serving their country” or “chose to dodge service.”
Gabbard then declined to comment on the Vietnam deferments of former vice president Joe Biden, who is leading most Democratic presidential polls. Biden received four student deferments, and then received a fifth and final medical-related deferment in 1968. Like Trump, Biden’s status was “1-Y,” or unqualified for duty except in a national emergency, in his case due to asthma.
“I’m not a doctor, so I’m not going to comment on that,” Gabbard said. “I know there are people who I have served with who have received medical discharges because of asthma. So, I’m not going to pretend to be the judge of all of this.”
Gabbard, who backed the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2016, has so far struggled to gain traction in the crowded Democratic field. In the latest poll of Iowa caucus-goers conducted by the Des Moines Register and CNN, Gabbard had 1 percent support. The Democratic National Committee announced Thursday that Gabbard would make the stage at the first debate late this month in Miami.
While Gabbard defines herself as a noninterventionist veteran, she pointedly said she is not aligned with noninterventionists in Trump’s orbit who have praised her, such as Stephen K. Bannon.
“There is no relationship,” Gabbard said, in response to a question about the former White House chief strategist’s invitation to meet with him and Trump following the 2016 presidential election.
“I got an invitation to go and talk to President Trump specifically about my views on foreign policy, specifically about my views on ending regime change wars, coming from my own experience as a soldier, understanding not only the high human cost, but how counterproductive it is to our own national security, and that’s what I did,” Gabbard said, adding that she met Trump in the hope that “he would not kind of be grabbed up in the claws of the neocon war hawks, of the likes of [national security adviser] John Bolton, which unfortunately it appears what has happened.”
The Washington Post Live event, called “The Changing Face of America’s Veterans,” was focused on veterans’ issues. Gabbard, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said one priority for her is eventually establishing a “transparent, independent approach” outside the chain of command to deal with accusations of sexual assault within the military.
Gabbard pointed to recently released data showing a nearly 38 percent spike in sexual assaults reported by service members in 2018.
“Now, some people are saying, ‘Hey, maybe that’s a positive sign in that more and more people are actually reporting, whereas previously they weren’t,’ ” she said. “But regardless, what it tells us is that this is something that is still too prevalent, and the current system that is in place within the military justice system is not providing that justice.”