Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Tulsi Gabbard’s candidacy for president has raised more problematic questions than answers for people on the Left. Many anti-war leftists call her a breath of fresh air in resisting the military industrial complex and the dangerous war duopoly. After she supported a diplomatic solution to Syria and supported Bernie Sanders for president in 2016, she made a name for herself in the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Since she has announced her candidacy however, a number of serious, complicated and important questions have been raised: What is her position on Syrian human rights? What does it mean that right wingers such as Steve Bannon and David Duke sing her praises? Is she actually a peace candidate or a hawk, especially when it comes to foreign policy matters that impact Muslims? What are her positions on key social issues? Is she Islamophobic and homophobic? And what is her affiliation with Narenda Modi all about?

In this interview, Professor Richard Falk breaks down the potential for Gabbard, and suggests that while the questioning and analyzing of her flaws are important, it might also be helpful to allow her candidacy time to develop and to see if her evolutions politically can adequately translate to governing effectively and progressively.

Daniel Falcone: The left seems to be divided on the candidacy of Tulsi Gabbard for president. What are your thoughts on this split?

Richard Falk:I find it premature to pass judgment on Tulsi Gabbard either for her past socially conservative positions or her controversial political visits to autocratic foreign leaders. She twice went to Damascus to meet with Bashar al-Assad of Syria and to Delhi to meet with Narendra Modi.

I find her explanation of these meetings, especially with Assad, acceptable, at least for now. She adopts a position, with which I agree, that meetings with foreign political leaders, including those that are viewed most negatively as essential initiatives for those who seek peace, and abhor war. She has compared her initiatives in this regard with her approval of Trump’s meetings with Kim Jung Un of North Korea to achieve a breakthrough on denuclearization and demilitarization of the Korean peninsula.

Her meeting with Modi did seem to involve an indirect endorsement of this political leader who has encroached upon the freedoms and democratic rights of the Indian people, especially the Muslim minority. In her defense, she was brought up during childhood as a serious Hindu and remains observant, the first ever Hindu to be elected to the U.S. Congress, and it is humanly natural that she would welcome the opportunity to meet with the greatest Hindu leader in the world.

What I find attractive about her political profile is that she has evolved in progressive directions during her political career, and along the way has shown an unusual degree of political independence. Her resignation as Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) so as to support Bernie Sanders seems to me a strong and impressive signal as to where her heart and mind is situated.

It was a bold principled act for a young and ambitious political figure. I also fine her assertions that the war/peace agenda is the most important issue confronting the American people to be a further sign that she thinks and feels for herself. I know from a common friend that she was deeply shaken personally by experiencing some months ago the supposed imminent nuclear attack that was aimed at Hawaii, but fortunately turned out to be a false alarm but not until after giving Hawaiians this horrifying existential reality test.

As a country, we desperately need candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination who are aware of the menace of nuclear weaponry, and ready to do something about it. None of the declared candidates seems to me more motivated to do this than does Tulsi Gabbard.

Gabbard brings many political skills and attributes to her candidacy. She has engaged in electoral politics since the age of 21, is a personable TV presence, and exhibits a likable combination of composure, commitment, humility, and humor when explaining her worldview. The fact that she volunteered for combat duty in Iraq and yet emerged as critical of war making, and regime changing interventions and the coercive diplomacy that accompanies it, is a further encouraging feature of her political persona, giving credibility and depth to her anti-war stands on foreign policy.

We do need to look at the dark sides of aspiring politicians, but we should do so in a discerning and empathetic manner. There are no absolutes, but we should generally be more attentive to the trajectory of political and personal behavior, and not hold to account a person’s coming of age beliefs, indiscretions, and misguided views of acceptable partying behavior. In other words, it is not only what they did then, but more significantly, what they have done since then. Have they convincingly changed course, and taken with conviction enlightened and progressive policies on race, sexual harassment, and sensitivity to vulnerable people?

We should also give political figures the benefit of the doubt when they exercise the freedom to depart from conventional orthodoxies. In this regard, no matter how much we might abhor many aspects of the Trump presidency, the fact that Gabbard withheld judgment on his foreign policy in the Middle East and in relation to global militarism is understandable, although we have to await further clarification before reaching a judgment as to whether Gabbard deserves to wave the banner of a progressive political future before the American people.

Daniel Falcone: How closely does Gabbard criticism and support correlate to criticism and support for Assad?

Richard Falk:I regard it as a mistake to merge criticism of Gabbard from the left with attitudes toward the situation, in Syria, including the Assad leadership. Gabbard was undoubtedly naïve when she spoke favorably of Assad’s apparent willingness to give assurances of his democratic intentions for the country. Yet at the same time no one has spoken with any moral and political authority about how to respond to the Syrian disaster since its inception in 2011, including the wizards of the Belt Way or the voices of the national security establishment.

As I understand Gabbard’s mission, it was to work toward the end of violence in the country and the restoration of political normalcy, enabling the withdrawal of American troops. She was reported as concerned about the peculiarity of teaming with al-Nusra and even ISIS so as to overthrow the legitimate government, however tarnished, of Syria. Supposedly, the first priority of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East since 9/11 is counterterrorism, so it is only Pentagon ideologues that overlook the contradictions between what we say and what we do when it comes to Syria. We may criticize Gabbard for seeming to take Assad’s words at face value, but we should note the context in which all approaches by Washington to Syria have failed. The old Nightingale dictum fits: “first do, no harm.”

Daniel Falcone: Is Gabbard a “progressive” in your view both domestically and in terms of foreign policy?

Richard Falk: I believe that Gabbard has exhibited many strong progressive tendencies, but the whole picture of her outlook, especially on foreign policy remains cloudy. Her strong backing of Sanders in 2016 is weighty evidence of a progressive approach, but we need more specifics with respect to health, education, taxation, immigration before feeling confident about endorsing her ideas on domestic policy.

With respect to foreign policy, there are now more blanks to fill in, clear indications, of where she stands on critical issues. It would be helpful, and revealing, if she can free herself from the Israeli lobby and its powerful donor community with regard to her approach to the Palestinian struggle for basic rights. It would also be reassuring if Gabbard were to indicate her support for the UN, international cooperation with respect to climate changeand global migration, a call for nuclear disarmament negotiations, and an overall willingness to orient American foreign policy around respect for international law.

Daniel Falcone: Some on the left that support her are taking Gabbard criticism very hard and accusing social democrats and Marxists of engaging in “identity politics” and claim that Gabbard opposition comes from a hidden support for “neoliberalism.” This to me sounds like a dangerous social democratic take to absolve Gabbard of serious transgressions. How did these terms (important in accurate application) become so vague and misleading on the left?

Richard Falk: I am not sufficiently conversant with this line of debate to have strong opinions, yet I share the sense that the criticism of Gabbard has been exaggerated and unbalanced. She deserves a chance to present herself as a presidential candidate. There are enough positive features of her candidacy and background to make me conditionally favorable, but this could change if she takes a hard line on ‘Islamic radicalism’or Iran that some of her critics believe.

At this point only a wait and see attitude is constructive. In a search for much needed unity, looking back to 2016, the Democratic Party would do well not to adopt hostile attitudes towards any candidate that challenges Trump’s hateful national chauvinism and the Cold War hangover that I label ‘the bipartisan consensus’(that is, neoliberalism plus global militarism plus special relationships with Middle Eastern autocrats).

Daniel Falcone:Which group of politicians and sets of voters identify more with Gabbard in your view, Sanders and the left wing of the Democratic Party or Rand Paul and advocates of the Libertarian Party? I fear the latter.

Richard Falk: It is too soon to tell, although you raise a troublesome possibility. In my view, at this stage, I view Gabbard as a stand in for Sanders with a more troubling mixture of positions offset or balanced  by her war/peace emphasis, and her readiness to learn from experience and to give voice to independent views that may collide with both the current liberal outlook and with the national security consensus, which although anti-Trump, has kept the Cold War mentality alive and well as the operative worldview of both the two established political parties and the deep bureaucratic state.

In this latter sense, there is some resemblance to the positions taken by Rand Paul, his willingness to stand alone and his ad hoc anti-militarism, but her attitude toward social issues seems anti-libertarian to me to make such a comparison misleading and unfair.

In general, I remain sympathetic with the Gabbard candidacy. I find it refreshing that a young woman from Hawaii who is a practicing Hindu is running for the presidency at this time.

To be sure she has baggage, not least of which is her apparent closeness to Modi, the autocratic leader of India, but so do several of the other promising female candidates. I think at this state it is well to let many flowers bloom, and observe closely which ones wilt in the heat of the campaign.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Daniel Falcone is a PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He also teaches humanities at the school of the UN and resides in Queens.