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In Defense of Tulsi Gabbard

The 2020 presidential hopeful is facing criticism from progressives and centrists alike

Tulsi Gabbard announced she's running for President

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) recently announced her plan to run for president, joining what is expected to be a very crowded field of Democratic candidates. Unfortunately for the Iraq war veteran and the first Hindu member of Congress, her campaign is already off to a very poor start. As revelations about Gabbard’s past record and comments resurfaced over the past week, she faced harsh criticism from progressives and centrists alike. She has been accused of being homophobic, islamophobic, too cozy with authoritarians like Assad, torture apologetic, xenophobic, and adored by white nationalists. If someone didn’t pay attention to the headline of this article, they might think we’re talking about Trump.

I take serious issue with such characterizations of the congresswoman; she is anything but those things. While some of the questions raised are valid concerns and worth further scrutiny, the majority of the attacks are misguided and lack substance. In this article, I will discuss each of those claims in great detail, so buckle up.

Tulsi Gabbard is a leading progressive

Gabbard is one of the more progressive representatives in Congress. She co-sponsored a single-payer Medicare for All bill that would have the U.S. join the rest of the developed world in providing health care to all of its citizens. She is a supporter of the Green New Deal and introduced the “Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act” that would transition away from fossil fuel sources to clean energy by 2035. Tulsi Gabbard supports eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities for families that make up to $125,000 a year.

Gabbard was one of only three progressives who voted against “Pay-go” budget limits which would stifle the ability to implement progressive priorities, such as Medicare for All. She also introduced legislation to require the use of paper ballots in federal elections, which would help increase voter confidence.

Tulsi Gabbard decided not to accept any PAC money from corporations and lobbyists in her 2018 re-election campaign. OpenSecrets.org reports:

After receiving over $400,000 in PAC money in her previous two reelection cycles, in 2018 her campaign only took in just over $37,000, almost all of which came from labor associations and trade unions.

What I admire most about Gabbard is her authenticity and courage to voice her opinions freely and not being afraid to break from the majority. She was not afraid to criticize the Obama administration for intervening in Syria and Libya. She took a great risk by defying the Democratic establishment when she resigned as DNC Vice Chair to endorse Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. “I felt a sense of duty and I couldn’t, in good conscience, stay back here in beautiful Hawaii and watch my brothers and sisters in uniform go off to combat,” she said in an ad explaining her reason to endorse Sanders.

Baseless accusations of Islamophobia

Tulsi Gabbard drew the ire of some on the left for slamming Obama’s refusal to use the term “radical Islam” out of fear that it would indict the entire Islamic faith. Ashley Smith accuses her of “vile Islamophobia.” Evan Hill of The Nation opines that “if there is a common thread to much of Gabbard’s foreign-policy worldview, it’s a suspicion of Islam.” And after Donald Trump weaponized the term during the 2016 campaign to rally his base, her use of the term only made it more problematic for her bid to secure the Democratic nomination.

But despite those critics, Tulsi Gabbard doesn’t bear a negative view of Islam. They may be surprised to learn that she even believes that Mohammed is “[a messenger] of God, [a messenger] of love, peace, and universal brotherhood.” Unlike Trump, Gabbard doesn’t use the term “radical Islam” as a dog whistle in order to drum up support for her base. She accurately describes this radical ideology as the “Wahhabi Salafist ideology sponsored and propagated by countries like Saudi Arabia” – a view supported by many Muslim clerics who called it “a dangerous deformation” of Islam.

Gabbard proposes the following strategy to defeat the extremist ideology:

The United States must use its leverage to pressure Saudi Arabia to stop spreading the Wahhabist extremist ideology through schools and mosques around the world, including in the U.S. We must stop arms sales and any other assistance to Saudi Arabia or other Gulf States involved in promoting and financing this jihadist ideology.

The U.S. must stop treating as “allies” countries that are promoting the Wahhabist ideology that is at the root of so much suffering worldwide.

By calling terrorists like al-Qaeda and ISIS “Islamic extremists” we are making a distinction between the vast majority of Muslims who are not extremists and a handful of those who are extremists. This is the best way to show our respect to peaceful Muslims around the world.

Coziness with Assad and el-Sisi

Tulsi Gabbard’s most dreadful offense, according to her detractors, is her so-called “alliance” with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It prompted former DNC Chairman Howard Dean to single out Gabbard as the only Democratic candidate who is not qualified to be president. Senator McCaskill called her “Assad’s bestie in America”. The progressive magazine The Nation called her ties “notorious” citing the controversial meeting with Assad last year.

These attacks, however, are baseless and lack an understanding of the conflict and the nature of her visit. Her critics fail to mention that she called Bashar al-Assad a “brutal dictator.” She also met with members from Assad’s opposition – omissions that are negligent at best and deliberate at worst.

The Iraq war veteran saw firsthand what the cost of war is to people’s lives. Her stated mission is to put an end to America’s “decades-long addiction to interventionist regime change wars.” She adds that these counterproductive wars created “more devastation, human suffering, and refugees while strengthening terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.”

Others lambasted Gabbard and went so far as to call for her to be primaried, due to her skepticism that Assad was behind the chemical attacks that claimed the lives of many innocent people. But Gabbard’s skepticism is not without merit. There didn’t appear to be an upside for the Syrian dictator to use the chemical weapons, especially since it happened at a time when the Syrian government was gaining ground, which should raise eyebrows. Former Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich agrees with Gabbard. In an interview with the Intercept, when asked if he believes that Assad was behind the chemical attacks, he answers:

No, and here’s why. Because Syria had been winning on the ground. They had a major battle that was a turnaround moment in Aleppo. And it would go against everything that makes sense militarily and politically to engage in a chemical weapons attack.

Instead of prematurely jumping to a conclusion, similar to how the U.S. did when it accused Saddam Hussein of using Weapons of Mass Destruction to justify the Iraq War, Gabbard called for an investigation by the U.S. She stated:

This administration has acted recklessly without care or consideration of the dire consequences of the United States attack on Syria without waiting for the collection of evidence from the scene of the chemical poisoning. If President Assad is indeed guilty of this horrible chemical attack on innocent civilians, I will be the first to call for his prosecution and execution by the International Criminal Court. However, because of our attack on Syria, this investigation may now not even be possible. And without such evidence, a successful prosecution will be much harder.

This issue touches me on a personal level, as I lived in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule. No one wanted him dead more than I. His regime assassinated my uncle and brutally tortured my father for two months to near death, rendering him unable to walk for a long time. Saddam also ordered genocide against 180,000 Kurds, used chemical and biological weapons against his own people, twice invaded neighboring countries, and committed crimes so severe, Assad’s atrocities pale in comparison. If there is a candidate for regime change, you couldn’t possibly find someone better than Saddam. Nevertheless, the regime change policy in Iraq was an utter disaster. It claimed the lives of thousands of American soldiers and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. It left the country in ruins, causing a civil war which impacts would take many decades to be reversed, and increased extremism to an unprecedented level, destroying the social fabric of the nation.

Tulsi Gabbard also faced criticism for crediting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with “taking on … extreme Islamist ideology, while also fighting against ISIS militarily to keep them from gaining a foothold in Egypt.” Critics find Gabbard’s support for the coup d’état that overthrew President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood unpalatable.

But once again, these critics appear to misunderstand the nature of the events in Egypt. The June 2013 revolution was organized by a “bunch of kids in T-shirts,” commanding numbers that were “larger than those that pushed out Mr. Mubarak” two years prior. Their demands? Early elections. But as Morsi stood defiantly and refused to provide concessions, Egypt was heading into a certain and bloody civil war. Unlike a typical coup d’état, the military gave the government a 48-hour ultimatum to meet the people’s demands and settle the crisis. When Morsi was eventually overthrown, it didn’t impose military rule, but established a technocratic government that would usher presidential elections the following year. Gabbard was on the right side of history in this case.

This does not mean that el-Sisi is a good person. The Egyptian president is an authoritarian who cracks down on dissent. He is responsible, or at the very least negligent, for the Rabaa massacre that claimed the lives of 683 to 1,000 lives, most of whom were Muslim Brotherhood protesters. Indications show that he may end the two-term limit set by the Egyptian constitution.

Tulsi Gabbard clearly paid attention to past lessons, and her foreign policy in the Middle East is by far the most nuanced and most comprehensive compared to any of the potential candidates considering a run to challenge Trump in 2020.

Anti-LGBTQ past

Soon after Tulsi Gabbard announced her run for president, several reports highlighted a troubling past of anti-LGBTQ activism. CNN reported that the congresswoman once touted working for her father’s anti-LGBTQ group that opposed same-sex marriage and promoted conversion therapy. The report also highlights Gabbard’s testimony at a hearing opposing a civil union bill where she said: “As Democrats, we should be representing the views of the people, not a small number of homosexual extremists.”

Gabbard’s views on LGBTQ rights have shifted dramatically since 2012. Human Rights Campaign gave her a 100 percent voting record on LGBTQ issues. She also issued a 4-minute video apologizing for past comments and explaining how she evolved on the issue.

Citing a 2016 article by Ozy, despite her pro-LGBTQ record, some objected that Gabbard’s personal views on homosexuality haven’t changed. This, however, turned out to be incorrect as reported by the Humanist Report.

Others were not ready to overlook those comments despite her apology. I strongly disagree with such positions. It’s important to note that Tulsi Gabbard lived in a very conservative family, was very young when she held those views, and is the daughter of the founder of an anti-LGBTQ organization. It takes a lot of courage for someone to change their worldview under such circumstances. This is why her change of view should be celebrated. I agree with the openly gay congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) who defended Gabbard, calling her a “strong ally and close friend in Congress.” He adds that the LGBTQ community should “not confuse forgiveness with weakness nor substitute recrimination for healing.”

Ties with Modi and right-wing Hindu groups

Gabbard, a practicing Hindu, was also criticized for ties with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and right-wing Hindu groups. Ziad Jilani writes in a scathing article: “Gabbard has inculcated this base of hardline [right-wing] BJP supporters, which has propelled her into Congress with thousands of its dollars.” Eoin Higgins chimes in, highlighting the support she received from the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) which he accuses of being “a foe of human rights, working to defend the Hindutva movement from much needed public scrutiny in the US.”

It’s important to note that it’s not surprising that Hindus, irrespective of their political views, would largely support the first Hindu member of Congress. Blaming her for the nationalist views of some of those supporters is like blaming Bernie Sanders because of the attitude of some of his supporters on social media (a.k.a. the Bernie Bros). The same logic applies to HAF’s support for Gabbard, which naturally will put all of its weight and support behind all Hindu candidates for Congress. HAF supported the progressive icon Ro Khanna, who also faced criticism as a consequence.

Soumya Shankar, however, highlights valid concerns such as Gabbard’s opposition to House Resolution 417 which chided India to protect “the rights and freedoms of religious minorities” and recommended that Modi should continue to be denied a U.S. Visa. This was a response to Modi’s negligence in the 2002 Gujarat riots which claimed over a thousand lives, most of them Muslims. Gabbard opposed the resolution, arguing that it “weakens, rather than strengthens, the friendship between the United States and India.” Gabbard also downplayed Modi’s involvement, stating that there is a lot of misinformation. I disagree with Gabbard, and her comments should be challenged. Despite a lack of evidence, Modi maintained that a Muslim mob attacked the Godhra train that sparked the violence. Fareed Zakaria also opines that “[i]t is a dark episode in India’s history, and Modi comes out of it tainted.” But Zakaria agrees with Gabbard’s position, saying that denying Modi a visa “has been selective, arbitrary and excessive.”

To Tulsi Gabbard’s credit, she is starting to distance herself from far-right Hindu nationalists when she decided to withdraw from Chair of the World Hindu Congress. Soumya Shankar reports that “[d]ispleasure with Gabbard’s recusal from the World Hindu Congress was widespread.”

Opposed Syrian refugees program

I agree with critics who lashed out at Tulsi Gabbard for joining Republicans to support the “American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act” that made it virtually impossible for a Syrian to enter the United States, despite the fact that Syrians already undergo some of the strictest vetting processes. USA Today reports:

The bill requires the nation’s three top security officials — the Homeland Security secretary, FBI director and national intelligence director — to certify to Congress that each Syrian or Iraqi refugee is not a security threat before the refugee can be admitted into the U.S.

Gabbard defended her vote, stating that she intended to vote against the bill but changed her mind when “Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough failed to answer simple questions about why they were opposed to the bill.” When they were asked if the added security measure can be met without delaying the process further, the White House basically said: “We’ll have to increase staff.” Gabbard wasn’t amused by this response, which is why she voted against it.

Gabbard, however, is not anti-immigration as critics appear to argue. She signed a letter urging the House Committee on Appropriations to increase funding for refugee assistance and resettlement programs to help with the Syrian refugee crisis to “speed up the process and ensure the highest security measures are upheld.”

Conflicted on torture

Gabbard was heavily criticized for her comments in an interview on NDTV where she indicated that she is conflicted on the use of torture. The CIA torture report showed that the CIA used inhumane practices including sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and rectal rehydration. The report also states that at least 26 detainees were found to be held “wrongfully.” And worst of all, “the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.”

A spokesperson from the Gabbard campaign told the Progressive Army that Gabbard opposes the use of torture. This is indicated by her support for amendments in the National Defense Authorization Acts that prohibit the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, including torture.


Tulsi Gabbard may be controversial, but writing her off is a mistake. She is a leading progressive who, if elected, would champion some of the most progressive legislation, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Yes, conservatives like her, but that’s a feature, not a bug. A recent poll by Honolulu Civil Beat shows that she is viewed favorably by 49 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of independents in Hawaii. Such numbers, should they hold nationwide, could give progressives what they desperately need — a super majority in Congress.

Correction: An earlier version stated that Tulsi Gabbard voted against HR 417. She opposed it, but the resolution wasn’t put to a vote. Additionally, an earlier version mischaracterized a quote from Gabbard.

Written by Salam Morcos

Salam Morcos is a Managing Editor of Progressive Army and a member of its Editorial Board.

Political activist for democracy, social justice, racial justice, women's right and human rights.

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In Defense of Tulsi Gabbard