When U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard took a discreet trip to Syria and met with President Bashar al-Assad during the week President Donald Trump was being sworn into office, it created a media buzz.
The U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Syria, and Assad has been accused of war crimes, including bombing civilian neighborhoods, during a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced about half the country.
When subsequent reporting revealed that Gabbard’s trip was paid for and orchestrated by people tied to a pro-Assad political group, it set off a media firestorm, including blistering criticism that she returned trumpeting Assad propaganda.
But none of that controversy stopped Gabbard from stepping back into the national media spotlight in recent days to weigh in on reports that Assad unleashed a chemical attack on Syrians that killed dozens. Footage showed victims, including children, gasping for breath or foaming at the mouth.
While her colleagues in Congress were expressing outrage at Assad, who has reportedly killed hundreds of Syrians with chemical attacks in the past, Gabbard publicly questioned whether it was in fact the Syrian leader who was behind this most recent attack.
Gabbard swiftly condemned Trump’s missile strike on a Syrian airbase as “dangerous, rash and unconstitutional,” and reiterated her opposition to any U.S. effort to remove Assad from power.
Gabbard is far from alone in urging caution against greater military intervention in Syria. But her measured approach toward Assad, particularly in light of her recent meetings with the leader, has unleashed a stinging rebuke from influential Democratic leaders and has some political analysts questioning her political future.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a progressive public-policy firm, both slammed Gabbard on Twitter, going so far as to suggest that Hawaii residents should vote her out of office during the next election.
“People of Hawaii’s 2nd district — was it not enough for you that your rep met with a murderous dictator? Will this move you?” Tanden tweeted Friday, with a link to Gabbard’s interview with CNN in which she said she was skeptical Assad was behind the attack.
Dean then tweeted, “This is a disgrace. Gabbard should not be in Congress.”
Going against the tide
Gabbard has a history of taking stances contrary to the majority in her party, but she usually comes out on top, her popularity all the stronger. This time, however, some are questioning whether she will emerge unscathed.
“I don’t think it is going to hurt her locally. I do think it is going to slow or stop her rise to national prominence or a national-level position,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Moore said that it would be difficult for anyone locally to beat Gabbard, who has enjoyed remarkably high popularity rates, but that she faces a more difficult political landscape nationally.
“Her rise was so quick that I think she was sort of embraced by a lot of people uncritically to some degree,” said Moore. “It is interesting because she was thought of as a progressive by progressives because of her support of Sen. Sanders, but also as a Democrat that Republicans could work with because of her position on some issues in foreign policy. It is a difficult world to inhabit for a long time. I mean, you offer a fresh voice initially, but I think there are always people waiting in the wings with knives in Washington.”
Moore said that Gabbard would have been fine if she had stuck to criticizing U.S. involvement in foreign wars, but she didn’t, going so far as to question Assad’s involvement in the attack and then calling for his execution if it were true.
“The fact that she met with (Assad) will be tough to live down, not the criticism of President Trump’s actions,” he said. “That is an example of her going rogue, and I don’t think it was appreciated by really anyone. And now it looks, I think, even more troubling. Going to Syria — it’s going to be tough.”
Trump’s ‘Wag the Dog’ moment?
Gabbard didn’t respond to an interview request, but said by email that she wouldn’t be swayed by politics.
“I’m never going to make decisions based upon who does or doesn’t support me, based on who’s criticizing me or who’s praising me,” she said by email. “I always base my decisions upon fact, information, and what I feel is best for the people of Hawaii and our country.”
She also reiterated past points she has made about her opposition to “counterproductive, regime change wars.”
“I and thousands of my brothers and sisters-in-arms went to war in Iraq based on false intelligence and lies from our leaders — our president, military and political leaders. We should have been skeptical then, and we weren’t,” Gabbard said by email. “The cost was thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars down the drain. (Not) to speak of millions of non-American lives. So I believe it is my duty, especially as a veteran and member of the House Committees on Armed Services and Foreign Affairs, to make sure this never happens again.”
While Gabbard has faced a backlash for urging caution in blaming Assad for the most recent chemical attack, that political calculation could change with a few reports surfacing in recent days that have also cast doubt on whether it was the Syrian government that was behind the attack.
A story on Consortium News called it “Trump’s ‘Wag the Dog’ Moment” and claimed that Trump brushed aside advice from some U.S. intelligence analysts questioning the Syrian government’s involvement.
“There is only one thing worse in politics than being wrong, and that is being right,” said former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who strongly defended Gabbard’s stances on Syria. “People will forgive you for being wrong, but they very seldom forgive you for being right.”
Abercrombie, who spent two decades in Congress, suggested that would require too much introspection.