Like it or not, the 2020 presidential primaries have already begun. Candidates vying to enter what promises to be a crowded field are already lining up donors, shopping for office space, advertising for staff, and gauging interest in their prospects among powerbrokers in the states that host the earliest contests. Given the Republican Party’s experience in 2016, it is unwise to make early judgments about who will rise and fall in a congested field without a clear heir apparent. And yet, uncertainties notwithstanding, we can safely say that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s interest in the presidency isn’t likely to do anyone any favors, least of all the Democratic Party.
The Washington Post described the 37-year-old congresswoman as a “rising star” in her party in the write-up of her remarks to MSNBC host Chris Matthews, whom she told on Wednesday that she was “seriously considering” a presidential campaign. That was probably an understatement. Gabbard has made several trips to Iowa and New Hampshire over the last few months, meeting with local Democratic Party officials in both states. She has reportedly begun reaching out to potential staff and consultants, and she will publish a book early next May auspiciously titled Is Today the Day?
On paper, Gabbard seems like a good fit for her party. The first Hindu to serve in Congress, a female combat veteran, and a progressive in good standing—she checks most of the boxes the next Democratic presidential nominee will need. But there will be a lot of progressive women and minorities running for the presidency next year, and most of them will be doing so with more political experience than Gabbard. What makes the congresswoman stand out from the field are her views on foreign affairs, and those views are no asset.
Gabbard’s staunch opposition to American intervention abroad in combination with her fierce antipathy toward radical Islamist terrorism might seem on its face to fit squarely within the mainstream of the Democratic Party. The problem for Gabbard is that those two beliefs often manifest in overt support for some of the world’s most atrocious and bloody authoritarian regimes.
Near the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, Gabbard sponsored legislation that would defund the covert American mission to support insurgent groups inside Syria to fight both the Bashar al-Assad regime and ISIS, insisting that these funds essentially support al-Qaeda and al-Nusra. She didn’t just dismiss the fact that both Damascus and Moscow have repeatedly made the same claim; she leaned into the unity of purpose between herself and the Assad-Putin nexus.
Gabbard traveled to Damascus in January of last year—long after the Assad regime was credibly implicated in some of the worst humanitarian atrocities of this century—where she met with the Syrian dictator. She eventually repaid the costs of her trip when journalists discovered that some Assad-linked Lebanese-American businessmen funded it, but that did not impose any caution on her conduct.
In April 2017, Gabbard again joined with some of the world’s worst actors. She strongly suggested that the Assad regime was not responsible for the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack in which over 70 were killed and hundreds more seriously injured. When the Trump administration responded with a limited cruise-missile strike on Syrian targets, Gabbard accused the White House of acting in service to the objectives of al-Qaeda and of having been swayed by “war hawks” who seek to escalate America’s “illegal regime-change war to overthrow the Syrian government.” Even as evidence of Assad’s culpability for the attack mounted, Gabbard held fast to her skepticism.
Gabbard’s advocacy on behalf of the genocidal despot in Syria invariably aligned her with Assad’s chief patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin. “[I]t’s mind-boggling that we protest Russia’s bombing of these terrorists,” the congresswoman tweeted in a credulous echo of Russia’s propagandist narrative in which any opponent of the murderous Assad regime is labeled a “terrorist.” “Al-Qaeda attacked us on 9/11 and must be defeated. Obama won’t bomb them in Syria,” she added. “Putin did.”
Moscow’s intervention in Syria was the nearest thing to total war we’ve seen in this century. Russian air assets did not discriminate against civilian targets, including hospitals and maternity wards. They facilitated attacks on United Nations humanitarian-aid convoys and allowed Syrian forces to execute starvation campaigns targeting entire cities. Gabbard declined to condemn these actions. She has even repeated the quisling trope that any effort to confront Russia and contain it’s territorial expansionism risks “nuclear war”—another of the Kremlin’s preferred lines.
Gabbard’s conspicuous adoption of the Putinist line on Syria places her outside the mainstream of her party, but it once yielded admiration from Donald Trump’s brain trust. According to people close to former White House strategist Steve Bannon, the president’s former campaign chairman was a big fan of the Hawaii congresswoman’s views on foreign affairs. He arranged a meeting between her and the president-elect during the transition period with the aim of securing an administration post for Gabbard and even floated her name as a potential ambassador to the United Nations under Trump. As is often the case, the quasi-isolationist views of the “America First” wing of the GOP align with those of the left’s appeasement caucus.
But that caucus has lost much of its influence over the Democratic Party in the age of Trump. Those on the left who could once be counted on to endorse a more humble and conciliatory approach to Russo-American relations have abandoned that perennial campaign plank, leaving Gabbard out on a limb. Maybe Gabbard thinks she can command the fealty of that forsaken Democratic constituency in a presidential campaign, and she might. But it’s more likely that Gabbard will stand as a painful reminder to voters about what Democratic stewardship of Russian-American relations and crises like the Syrian civil war looks like. That’s the last thing Democrats want.