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The Promise of Tulsi Gabbard: A Partial Response to Skeptics

25 Feb

[Prefatory Note: This post is a slightly modified text of my responses to questions put to me by Daniel Falcone, published on Feb. 19, 2019 in Counterpunch with the title, “Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard.”

I use a more positive title here that better captures my sense of her candidacy. Since the interview Tulsi Gabbard made a strong and encouraging statement condemning Monsanto for trying to hide the evidence of the harmful impacts on human health arising from the continued merchandising and use of its highly profitable pesticide, Roundup. I think Gabbard has adopted an admirable stand. It is consistent with the willingness of Gabbard to give concrete meaning to her attacks on Wall Street and income/wealth inequalities. As my title suggests, I find Gabbard a promising candidate despite some false past steps, and believe she currently deserves the benefit of the doubt from all of us.]

 

The Promise of Tulsi Gabbard: A Partial Response to Skeptics

 

  1. The left seems to be divided on the candidacy of tulsi gabbard for president. What are your thoughts on this split?

 

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 endorsement 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 and progressive intellectuals. 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 moat important 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 find her assertions that the war/peace agenda is the most important issue confronting the American people to be a further indication that she thinks and feels for herself, and is willing to ignore the taboos of mainstream American politics. 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. Although, fortunately the attack turned out to be a false alarm yet not until after giving Hawaiians, including Gabbard, a horrifying existential appreciation of what is deeply wrong about basing national security on a nuclear capability. As a country, we desperately need candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination who are sufficiently aware of the menace of nuclear weaponry, and seem ready to do something about it, which means confronting the nuclear establishment that has killed every effort to get rid of nuclear weapons, most recently Obama’s 2009 Prague speech committing himself to working toward a world without nuclear weapons. None of the declared candidates seems to me nearly as motivated to do this as does Tulsi Gabbard. She can be viewed as a ‘Sanders Plus’ candidate, that is, Walll Street plus the Pentagon (a shorthand for global militarism).

 

Gabbard brings political skills, wide ranging experience, and a winning personality to her candidacy. She has engaged in electoral politics since the age of 21, is a genuine and attractive TV presence, and exhibits an engaging 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. It contributes credibility and depth to her anti-war stands on foreign policy. She connects her commitment to seeking peaceful ways of achieving foreign policy goals with the impact of her direct exposure to the ugly realities of war: “I have seen war first-hand is why I fight so hard for peace.” How many of the presidential candidates can match either half of this claim? Given the US role in the world, we cannot be content with presidential candidates that are progressive on domestic issues but evade or are mainstream on foreign policy litmus test issues.

 

I agree that 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 when it comes to evaluating political profiles. I believe 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, including long ago misguided views of acceptable partying behavior. In other words, it is not only what they did or are accused of doing back then, but far 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 those who are marginalized and vulnerable minorities.

 

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 or Korea, and in relation to global militarism is understandable, even commendable. To be confident about such a positive assessment, we have to await further clarification of her positions on these and other issues before reaching a judgment. The question we should ask ourselves in  whether on balance Gabbard deserves to wave a banner

before the American people proclaiming her commitment to a progressive political future.

 

  1. How closely does gabbard criticism and support correlate to criticism and support for Assad?

 

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 seemingly naïve when she spoke after her meeting 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 constructively to the Syrian disaster since its inception in 2011, including the wizards of the Belt Way, the voices of the national security establishment, as well as the most strident civil society activists pro and con military intervention by the US.

 

As I understand Gabbard’s mission, it was to work toward the end of violence in Syria and the restoration of political normalcy, enabling the withdrawal of American troops. She was reported as concerned about the perverse peculiarity of the US Government teaming with al-Nusra and even ISIS so as to promote the insurgency against 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 who overlook the contradictions between what American leaders want us to believce and what we do when it comes to Syria, and elsewhere. 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.” I think that Gabbard passes this test better than most, including those that mount criticism of her Syrian initiatives.

3. Is gabbard a “progressive” in your view both domestically and foreign policy wise?

 

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 supporting her ideas on domestic policy. With respect to foreign policy, there are now more blanks to fill in than clear indications of where she stands on critical issues and her broader worldview relating especially to such global challenges as climate change and global migration. It would be helpful, and revealing, if Gabbard can free herself from the AIPAC core of the Israeli lobby and its powerful donor community. She would win many adherents, and lose some, if she adopted a position if she crafted a more balance US approach to relations with Israel and with regard to the Palestinian struggle for basic rights. It would also be reassuring if Gabbard were to demonstrate support for the UN, international cooperation on issues of global scope, issue a call for nuclear disarmament negotiations, and express some understanding of why it has become so critical to anchor American foreign policy on the basis of respect for international law.

4. The hard left is taking gabbard criticism very hard and accusing social democrats and marxists of engaging in “identity politics” and support for “neoliberalism.” How did these terms (important in accurate application) become so vague on the left?

 

I am not sufficiently conversant with this line of debate to have strong opinions, yet I share the sense that criticisms of Gabbard from several ideological perspectives has been exaggerated, dogmatic, and unbalanced. She deserves the chance to present herself as a presidential candidate without political smears. 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 condemn her for. At this point only a wait and see attitude is constructive. In a search for much needed unity, looking back to the failures of 2016, the Democratic Party would do well not to adopt hostile attitudes towards any candidate who seriously 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). Gabbard mounts such a challenge to a degree that compares favorably to her Democratic rivals for the nominations

5. 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 libertarianism. I fear the latter.

 

It is too soon to tell, although you raise a troublesome possibility. In my view, at this stage, I regard Gabbard as similar in appeal to that of 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. These positions 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 of the two established political parties as well as of 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 distinctly anti-libertarian to me, making such comparisons misleading and unfair.

 

In general, I remain sympathetic with the Gabbard candidacy. I find it refreshing that a young and energetic 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 uncritical reaction to Modi, the autocratic leader of India. Before judging Gabbard we should keep in mind that the other more promising candidates each have serious blemishes with respect to their past or their current policy posture. I think at this early stage of the political campaign it is well to let many flowers bloom, and observe closely which wilt. My guess is that Tulsi Gabbard will fare well as the candidates come before the public to state their arguments for gaining support of the American voting public, but less well with the monied special interests. If this is so, it exposes the plutocratic character of American national politics more than it does the strength or weakness of a given political figure.

 

Some say Gabbard is too young, too far from the American mainstream, and too exotic in background to become a credible candidate, that she has faded from view even before ever being fully seen. Let’s hope this sort of judgment is overridden by a surge of appreciation for Tulsi Gabbard’s promise and potential.

 

 

 

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