She’s young, she’s hip, and she’s beautiful. She’s also a combat veteran and a Democrat who has made headlines for slamming the Obama administration’s rudderless foreign policy. 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.
“I like her thinking a lot,” American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks tells National Review in an e-mail. Brooks describes Gabbard as “smart and reasonable,” as well as “pragmatically strong on defense.”
“She could be a very powerful new voice on the D side,” he says.
It’s not often, especially in the Age of Obama, that you hear prominent Republicans lavish praise on up-and-coming Democrats. But Gabbard’s public condemnation of the president’s national-security strategy is turning heads and winning her rave reviews from across the aisle. With the U.S. on the precipice of a deal with Iran, Gabbard’s embrace of American exceptionalism, combined with her exotic background — she was born in American Samoa, and she is Hindu — seems to offer the Democratic party a different way forward. It harkens back to the Truman era, and it’s attractive to many Republicans, particularly those who care about foreign affairs and are seeking to renew a bipartisan consensus on national security.
“I think she’s a responsible American congresswoman who served in the military and looks at the situation as she sees it,” says Danielle Pletka, AEI’s vice president for foreign policy and defense. “She doesn’t see everything through a political prism and is thoughtful and serious,” Pletka says. “I admire her.”
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Since taking office in January 2013, Gabbard has cultivated relationships with conservative national-security and defense experts, particularly those from AEI, an institution known for churning out research advocating a muscular foreign policy. She was one of just three Democrats to land an invitation to AEI’s exclusive annual retreat in Sea Island, Ga., earlier this month — New Jersey senator Cory Booker and Maryland congressman John Delaney were also invited – and she’s befriended and impressed AEI’s foreign-policy wonks.
At the suggestion of Michael Auslin, an Asia expert at AEI, Gabbard was invited to the Halifax International Security Forum last November. When Auslin first met Gabbard in 2013, he says, he was struck by her “very developed sense of American national interests.”
“She wasn’t hemming or hawing or wishfully thinking about what North Korea might or might not do, or what China might or might not do,” Auslin says. “She’s not dogmatic.”
Though not the only Democrat to voice anxiety over the White House’s national-security priorities, Gabbard is perhaps the most conspicuous. Her Republican fans describe her as a conventional liberal where domestic politics are concerned, but the twice-deployed Iraq War veteran is one of the most hawkish Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee.
When the president held his “Combating Violent Extremism” summit in February, conservatives and Republicans gnashed their teeth over his refusal to label such groups as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda “Islamic.” Gabbard leapt into the fray.
“Unless you accurately identify who your enemy is, then you can’t come up with an effective strategy, a winning strategy to defeat that enemy,” she told Fox News’s Neil Cavuto on February 18. “You’re not identifying the fact that they are not fueled by a materialistic motivation, it’s actually a theological — this radical Islamic ideology that is allowing them to continue to recruit, that is allowing them to continue to grow in strength and that’s really fueling these horrific terrorist activities around the world.”
Gabbard’s gripes about the administration’s foreign policy go beyond semantics. She has consistently challenged what she considers the White House’s failed strategy for combating ISIS and stabilizing Iraq. As recently as two weeks ago, in an appearance on Face the Nation, she criticized the “failed” American policy of “propping up this Shia-led government in Baghdad that’s heavily influenced by Iran, [which] has caused, essentially, . . . ISIS to grow in Iraq.” She flatly accused the Obama administration of having “no clear plan in place for the Sunni people to take charge of the Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq, which is the only thing that will prevent ISIS from coming back in, even if there is a military victory.”
She’s also taken the administration to task over its recent rapprochement with Iran, lamenting the “confusion” in U.S. policy during another interview with Cavuto on March 24. “We have the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, omitting Iran and Hezbollah from the list of threats to our country for the first time in a long time,” she said, noting that the Islamic theocracy is meanwhile building an empire in the region. “There seems to really be a lack of a coherent strategy with regards to how we, as the United States, are dealing with Iran, as we look at this threat of a nuclear-armed Iran,” she said.
Not all conservatives are as smitten with Gabbard as those who roam the hallways at AEI. James Jay Carafano, a national-security expert at the Heritage Foundation, says all the exuberance is unwarranted, and that Gabbard has attracted outsized attention and gotten a media platform because she is an Iraq War veteran who has bucked a Democratic president. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in this,” he says. Whether her background indicates she’s a “national-security leader that fits into the kind of traditional mold,” he says, is “very different than a couple of press quotes.”
And, impressed as she is with Gabbard, Pletka doesn’t view her a singular figure. “I think it’s hugely unfair to single her out as somebody who’s been a particularly vocal critic of the administration because she’s a woman, because she’s from Hawaii,” she says. “She may be a thought leader, but she’s certainly not alone in the Democratic party.”
Gabbard is canny, which means she’s also cautious about her association with conservative hawks. Auslin says she considered writing an article with him last fall on the security situation in Asia, but the idea was not high on her list of priorities with a reelection campaign looming, and it fell by the wayside (“Does she really want to be writing a piece with an AEI guy right before her first [re]election?” he says). And her office did not respond to repeated interview requests. “You guys’ profiling her is going to be like the kiss of death,” Auslin says with a laugh.
A lot of people hope that’s not the case. Auslin, for one, sees a Senate bid as a “natural” progression for Gabbard’s career. If so, she’s setting herself up to direct the Democratic party away from the path trod by the last young politician with Hawaiian origins, a funny name, and uniquely American ambitions.
And, according to her fans, she is not alone, even if she’s getting the most attention right now. Auslin says the pushback within the Democratic party against the Obama administration’s foreign policy is building, particularly among Gabbard’s generation. “I’ll admit, I see a lot of young Democrats” like her, he says. “Not everyone has taken the stand that she has. Not everyone has approached it from that sort of statesmanlike level. But I think it’s something that, particularly as conservatives, we shouldn’t ignore.”
– Brendan Bordelon is an online media reporter for National Review. Eliana Johnson is Washington editor for National Review.
Editor’s Note: This post has been amended since its initial posting.