One Cheer for Tulsi

Representative Tulsi Gabbard speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa., July 26, 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Perpetual war requires perpetual peace candidates

What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding? Elvis Costello’s bitter song by that name was on my mind while I listened to Tulsi Gabbard’s maiden campaign speech for the presidential nomination of the Democratic party over the weekend. The social-democratic space on the left side of the Democratic field has been filling up with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And so it seemed prudent for Gabbard to distinguish herself as the peace candidate, the one woman of the anti-imperialist left. She promised to “end the regime-change wars that have taken far too many lives and undermined our security by strengthening terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.” My first thought: good luck to her.

Close listeners of NR’s Editors podcast will note a developing running joke where Rich Lowry teases me for support of Gabbard. And in fact, I find I do have some reasons to cheer her candidacy.

First, she’s at least interesting. The rest of the Democrats will be accusing each other of deviationism over trivialities. Gabbard’s been accused of being a toady of Bashar al-Assad and a Hindu-nationalist fifth columnist. She also grew up in a socially conservative household and, as a very young woman, she participated in her activist father’s campaigns against the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriage. You can imagine how that’s going over among Democrats. But she’s also young and attractive. She’s a veteran of the Iraq war, and still serves in the Hawaii Army National Guard. And unlike Barack Obama, who basically appropriated his wife’s South-Side Chicago identity, Gabbard fully embraces her Hawaiian roots. If one made a word cloud of her first campaign speech, “Aloha” would outrank “love,” “sacrifice,” and even “neocon.”

In her campaign speech, Gabbard recalled the nuclear-weapons scare that sent her state into a panic last year, and she returned to the threat of nuclear annihilation several times. She denounced the emergence of a new Cold War. This likely struck some as unbearably antique. But I happen to share her worry that we underestimate the chance of blundering into nuclear conflict. While I wouldn’t use the same language, I agree that the United States sometimes treats matters that are peripheral to its interests as urgent, solely because they are important to our rivals in Moscow.

Like Gabbard, Donald Trump campaigned with a promise to end “stupid wars” in order to spend at home. Such promises may strike most commentators as silly, but it reflects a very real small-r republican tradition in American life. In one debate, Trump put it very bluntly. “We have done a tremendous disservice not only to the Middle East — we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity,” he said. “The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away — and for what? It’s not like we had victory. It’s a mess.” He was right. We helped install an Iran-friendly government that had so little purchase in the Sunni Triangle that ISIS radicals were able to run wild there. “Mess” is putting it lightly.

Has Trump followed through on his promise to end America’s wars in the Middle East? Not really. His drawdown in Syria is being re-jiggered and re-branded by the foreign-policy establishment as retrenchment in Iraq. The shameful U.S. participation in Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen–a humanitarian disaster–continues unabated. So there is room for a peace candidate.

She’s also willing to tilt against her party. She defended a generous vision of liberal religious pluralism and social respect when she went after a fellow Hawaii Democrat, Senator Mazie Hirono, for attacking federal-judiciary nominee Brian Buescher based solely on his membership in the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic charitable order. Writing in The Hill, Gabbard said that while she opposed the nominee for other reasons, “I stand strongly against those who are fomenting religious bigotry, citing as disqualifiers [his] Catholicism and his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus.” This is good, and she seems to be paying a price for it as Hawaiian Democrats work up a primary challenger in her House district. It’s also not clear whether Democrats are angrier that Gabbard once had tea with Bashar al-Assad, or with Donald Trump when he was filling out his Cabinet picks.

As with her attitude toward Buescher, the usual differences between progressives and conservatives prevent me from ever supporting her for the office she seeks. And I’d caution that there are still differences between anti-interventionists on the Right and on the Left that are worth quarreling over.

Left and right anti-interventionists share a skepticism about America’s ability to change the behavior of our rivals. But for different reasons. Left-leaning anti-interventionists tend to be more suspicious of American power and intentions. And they tend to exaggerate the virtues of America’s rivals, explaining away horrendous human-rights records as reactions to American imperialism. Or they engage in simple, morally inert whataboutism. Object to Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and they bring up theories of encirclement, or distract you with talk about U.S. interventions in Haiti.

Right-wing anti-interventionists view the behavior of foreign regimes as the product of a set of geographic, historical, cultural, and political circumstances that U.S. military power cannot alter. A conservative realist is more likely to despair of changing the Kremlin. If we were similarly subjected to Russia’s geographic position, wedged between Germany, Turkey, China, and Japan, with the attendant history of invasions from the West and humiliations from the East, we’d be pretty awful too. If Putin were surrounded by two giant oceans, Canada, and Mexico, he could spend his time catching up on Fox News and Twitter, rather than organizing a rebellion in the Donbass.

These differences are meaningful. And they’ll lead to different judgements. Gabbard has denounced the State Department’s recognition of a new interim government in Venezuela. I share her aversion to anything that could lead to another military conflict. But if the coordinated efforts of many governments can help Venezuelans throw out a socialist kleptocracy that long ago forfeited its democratic legitimacy, I’m all for it.

So on balance I give one, maybe one and half cheers to Tulsi Gabbard. Eisenhower ran as a peace candidate. Nixon ran to end the war. So long as the U.S. is overstretched, it needs a candidate committed to peace. I’m glad someone stepped up on the other side.

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