Look, one 2016 candidate being prone to wild and baseless accusations is enough. Appearing on Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s podcast, Hillary Clinton suggested that 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein was a “Russian asset,” that Republicans and Russians were promoting the Green Party, and insinuated that Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard was some sort of tool of the Russian government.
“They’ve got their eye on someone who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate,” Clinton said on the podcast. “She’s the favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.”
This is bonkers. You don’t have to look at Tulsi Gabbard’s record on foreign policy for long to find areas for fair criticism, perhaps most infamously her meeting with Bashar al-Assad at the height of the Syrian Civil War, and exhibiting a strange reluctance to criticize the dictator upon her return to the United States. She’s still not willing to say she thinks Assad is a war criminal.
Gabbard’s foreign policy views may well be wrongheaded ones. But she’s direct and honest about them, and it’s highly unlikely that she’s been bribed, brainwashed or coerced into these positions.
Gabbard’s service in Iraq convinced her that not only was that war a waste of blood and treasure, but our efforts in Afghanistan were similarly unproductive and wasteful as well. In her speeches, she describes her daily duty of going through the list of those wounded and killed, and the “service members who had eventually come home, with wounds both visible and invisible, wounds and scars that would stay with them for many years to come.”
In Gabbard’s worldview, the preeminent priority of the United States is avoiding terror attacks and avoiding getting sucked into wars triggered by terror attacks. While she rarely says so explicitly, her experience suggests she sees the the best option to pursue this difficult goal is to reach deals with the brutal but non-Islamist dictators and monarchs who will keep order. Assad, King Abdullah, the Saudis — in the end, as long as they keep their extremist lunatics from blowing up Americans, we should give them a handshake and let them rule as they see fit.
The appeal of this approach — Islamist terrorists get locked up, and American soldiers don’t come home in flag-draped caskets — is clear. Whether it works is another story. An American alliance with brutal regimes means that at least a little part of the Islamist argument is true, that we believe in freedom and liberty but don’t really want it in the Arab world, and we don’t care about the suffering of Muslims. When push comes to shove, we’re as comfortable dealing with the Saudis about oil as the NBA is with dealing with China about sneakers: just give us what we want and we don’t care what else you’re doing. Oppressive regimes can suppress extremism but they also fuel it. There’s also the fair question of how much we can trust any dictatorial regime. Because these guys have no conscience, it’s not like they’re above trying to play both sides of the street or breaking their promises.
History suggests that American alliances of convenience with unsavory dictators rarely last or turn out well for us, whether it’s Stalin, Marcos, the Shah, Saddam Hussein against the Iranians, Pakistan… these relationships almost always come back to bite us. When the masked cops with sticks start beating the local peasants, we end up rooting for the cops because technically the regime is protecting our interests.
But again, the U.S. establishment foreign policy consensus — a consensus that I often agree with! — is so deeply ingrained that some of its adherents sometimes can’t believe that anyone could honestly disagree; anyone who’s challenging it must be doing so out of bad faith or sinister motives.
Until Hillary Clinton or anyone else generates some actual proof, treat Tulsi Gabbard for what she appears to be — an impassioned isolationist who believes the United States has no business attempting to spread our values or stand up for human rights abroad, and who’s comfortable working with brutal dictators if the end result is fewer American casualties. Not every bad or controversial idea in public life is a sign of a sinister conspiracy.