Tulsi Gabbard’s stances on Syria could be fodder in presidential debate
Gabbard, a major in the Army National Guard, has made foreign policy a cornerstone of her long-shot bid for the presidency.
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Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard could face tough questions about her views on Syria during today’s presidential debate in light of President Donald Trump’s decision last week to pull troops out of northern Syria and abandon America’s longtime Kurdish allies to an attack by Turkish forces.
Gabbard, a major in the Army National Guard, has made foreign policy a cornerstone of her long-shot bid for the presidency. She’s derided the United States’ “regime change wars” and promised to bring American troops home from foreign entanglements in the Middle East if elected president — a promise she’s accused Trump of making during his campaign but not fulfilling.
But now that Trump has pulled back troops in Syria, in what’s been widely panned as a blow to America’s strategic interests and alliances, political analysts say Gabbard’s foreign policy judgment could be scrutinized.
She’s already faced tough questioning throughout the campaign about a controversial trip she made to Syria in January 2017 where she met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The trip was organized by two Ohio residents with former ties to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which had backed Assad. Gabbard later personally repaid the trip amid controversy.
“She’s going to be asked to explain herself on the Syria question,” said Todd Belt, a professor and director of the Political Management Program at George Washington University. “She’s in a real problematic position with her positions on Syria, especially now with the influence of Russia over Syria, the Kurds having to go to the Syrians for protection, the release of the Islamic State prisoners — her foreign policy judgment is going to be called into question during the debate, I have no doubt.”
She has used her foreign policy experience, including her two tours of duty in the Middle East, to distinguish herself among a crowded field of Democratic primary contenders and take swipes at her competitors. She told Fox Sports Radio that Kamala Harris had no background in foreign policy and wasn’t qualified to serve as commander in chief, criticism she more recently extended to Elizabeth Warren, a front-runner in the primary race.
“I think she is going to have to be very careful in what she says because it would be very easy for one of the candidates to bring up her past positions on Syria and the fact that she met with Assad and the fact that in many ways her vision of foreign policy is partially aligned with what Donald Trump says he’s doing, which is to remove American troops and to embrace a less interventionist foreign policy,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Gabbard has for several years called on the U.S. to end its involvement in Syria where democratic protests in 2011, part of the Arab Spring uprisings, devolved into a devastating civil war.
Trump’s chaotic policy moves in recent days have brought into sharp focus the complexities of simply abandoning American involvement in the region even as the war appears to be coming to an end under a triumphant Assad.
Gabbard, who didn’t respond to a request to comment for this story, often seems to oscillate between calling for the U.S. to remove its troops from Syria, as part of her message to end regime-change wars, and warning of the risks to Kurdish allies.
In December Trump ordered the withdraw of 2,000 American troops from Syria, declaring a victory against ISIS. Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle criticized the decision and the risk this posed to Syria’s ethnic Kurds, who have been U.S. partners in the fight against the Islamic State.
Days later she tweeted, “The hysterical reaction to the decision to withdraw troops from Syria is astonishing and shows just how attached to war some are.”
She later warned of the need to withdraw American forces in order to avoid Kurds’ being slaughtered.
On Friday, in response to reports that U.S. special forces had been caught up in Turkish shelling against American-backed Turkish positions in norther Syria, Gabbard again called for immediate withdrawal.
“@RealDonaldTrump remove your troops from Syria now! You’ve put them in harm’s way with no clear mission/strategy,” Gabbard tweeted. “They’re not helping the Kurds or going after (al-Qaida). It’s been one year since you promised to bring them home — long enough to have done so carefully.”
This could be the last Democratic primary debate for which Gabbard qualifies. The Democratic National Committee kept the criteria for qualifying for the debates low after criticism during the 2016 election that it was limiting debates to favor then- candidate Hillary Clinton. But the DNC has raised the bar for the November debate, which will be the fifth. Candidates must obtain at least 3% in four polls approved by the party or at least 5% in two early state polls. Gabbard has until Nov. 13 to meet those thresholds.
“I think this is the last opportunity she’ll have on the national stage, most likely,” said Moore. “So I think she is going to do everything she can to make a splash. That probably means that she is going to go after one of the leading candidates.”
Last week she threatened to boycott today’s debate, accusing the Democratic National Committee and corporate media of “trying to hijack the entire election process.” On Monday she announced that she would attend after all.
Both Moore and Belt said Gabbard’s threat of a boycott was likely a publicity stunt aimed at drumming up attention prior to the debate.
“It is either a publicity stunt or it was a really bad decision. And either way, it doesn’t reflect very positively on her,” said Belt. “A lot of Democrats don’t like the fact that President Trump is always screaming about things being unfair and such, and they don’t like the fact that the president is impulsive and changes his mind. And to many Democrats, Tulsi is exhibiting exactly the same behavior as the president.”
>> When: 2 p.m. today
>> TV: CNN
>>Number of candidates: 12
>>Online: Livestreaming on CNN.com and nytimes.com