“The trouble [with injustice] is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”
- Arundhati Roy
Once again, Arundhati Roy - the esteemed Indian author and activist - more eloquently described what I’m feeling than I could ever hope to. After tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lifetime in the Army and burying several brave young men for no good reason, I couldn’t remain silent one moment longer. Certainly not about the madness of America’s failed forever wars, nor about domestic militarization of the police and the border, nor about the structural racism borne of our nation’s “original sin.” Still, most of my writing and public dissent has stayed within the bounds of my limited expertise: the disease of endless, unwinnable and often unsanctioned American wars.
At times it’s been a decidedly lonely journey, particularly in the many years I remained on active duty while actively dissenting. I was, and remain, struck by how few of my fellow soldiers, officers and recent post-9/11 veterans felt as I did—strongly enough, at least, to publicly decry U.S. militarism. Then I discovered Tulsi Gabbard, an obscure young congresswoman from Hawaii who, coincidentally, serves in the Army and is herself a veteran of the war in Iraq. In the current climate of Gabbard-bashing, where even sites like Truthdig offer measured criticism, it’s hard to convey the profound sense of relief I felt that someone as outspokenly anti-war as Gabbard even existed way back in 2016. She said things I only dared think back then; and as I did, she backed Bernie Sanders—a risky endeavor that likely doomed her to the recent slanderous accusations of treason by Hillary Clinton. That’s called courage.
Perhaps the appropriate place to begin my qualified defense of Gabbard is with Clinton’s outrageous—and unsubstantiated—assertion that the long-shot 2020 presidential candidate is being “groomed” by the Russians to run a third-party spoiler campaign in the general election.
First off, Gabbard should seriously consider suing for libel. Clinton has veritably, and without a shred of evidence, accused her of treason, a crime that, due to Gabbard’s continued military service, is punishable by death. This is no small matter.
This absurd accusation could usher in a new Red Scare, if there isn’t one already underway—a frightful time in American history when almost anyone outside the hawkish Cold War mainstream consensus could be labeled a “Soviet asset” or Communist fellow traveler. Gay government employees, pacifists, leftist union leaders, anti-war activists and cultural bohemians, among others, were swept up in the conformist madness. Many were unable to recover their careers and reputations.
That a self-proclaimed liberal and supposed symbol of anti-Trumpism like Clinton would peddle in such fearmongering should be surprising, but in the Democratic Party of 2019, it sadly isn’t. When Gabbard fired back that Clinton is the “queen of the warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long,” she was absolutely correct. From Iraq to Libya to Syria, Clinton has been a hawk’s hawk, and she’s been wrong on every major foreign policy issue of her day. As for the “corruption” and “rot” at the heart of the Democratic Party, consider this very simple but poignant fact: In 2005, Gabbard was serving her country in Iraq; Clinton was attending Donald Trump’s third wedding.
To be fair, there are aspects of Gabbard’s public career that deserve criticism, or at least firm requests for clarification. Early in her political life—though this has nothing much to do with foreign policy—she held some disturbingly anti-LGBT positions. I absolutely loathe that. However, she has since recanted and expressed her regret for once opposing marriage equality. Lest we forget, none other than Barack Obama “evolved” on that issue as well, moving from tepid opposition to enthusiastic support in a time period not dissimilar to Gabbard’s change of heart. As for Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, toward which Gabbard was foolishly lukewarm, she’s changed her mind on that as well. Some might accuse her of flip-flopping, but how many current Democratic favorites—think Elizabeth Warren, a former Republican—have changed course, rethought old positions and adapted to the times based on new evidence?
Then there’s Gabbard’s occasionally disturbing cozying up to dictators. I’m thinking specifically of the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi in India, barrel-bomb-happy Bashar Assad in Syria and demonstrator-massacring Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Egypt. Modi is a neo-fascist; Assad is a monster; and el-Sissi runs the worst police state in Egyptian history. Still, it seems unproductive to reduce Gabbard’s views to the binary of loving or hating dictators. For one thing, there’s a measure of hypocrisy here. Clinton hasn’t raised a peep about Modi or el-Sissi, and the Obama administration worked hand in hand with the brutal Saudi regime.
When it comes to Syria, Gabbard has a point. She’s the only 2020 Democratic candidate willing to recognize that the U.S. launched a brutal regime-change war that involved backing al-Qaida-linked groups, even empowering Islamic State. The result has been the complete disintegration of Syrian society and a migration crisis that continues to roil the West. And this may not be politically correct to admit, but Assad, for all his many flaws, never posed a threat to the U.S. homeland and protected both Christians and other minorities. Gabbard, despite knowing it would hurt her politically, had the intellectual fortitude to admit that his was preferable to Islamist rule.
Whatever the merits of these criticisms, I can’t help but think they overshadow one vital point: Gabbard is the only Democratic hopeful to place foreign policy—specifically ending the absurd wars she was a part of herself—at the top of her campaign agenda. Love her or hate her, that is profound in post-9/11 America. She’s been an outspoken opponent of the U.S.-backed Saudi genocide in Yemen, repeatedly calls out the lie of an Iraq War that shattered the Middle East, and is almost alone in criticizing Obama’s repeatedly counterproductive actions that armed and fueled anti-American Islamists in Syria. These are vital truths in an age of obfuscation and foreign policy apathy.
Gabbard faces a near-impossible task. In today’s evermore paranoid and conspiratorial climate, anyone who espouses anything resembling Trump’s (unfulfilled) anti-war rhetoric is certain to be labeled—as I’ve regularly been—a “Putin apologist” or a “Russian asset.” Yes, she’s polling around 2%, so one could argue that I’m wasting my time defending her. Nonetheless, that Clinton bothered to attack her, that The New York Times did so twice before the “queen of the warmongers” did, and that she’s such a polarizing figure despite her long-shot status, suggests that a segment of the discredited Democratic establishment fears her. From my perspective, that alone is something to like about Gabbard.
So, from one Army major and combat vet to another, Tulsi Gabbard, please give a major speech clarifying each and every criticism leveled against you—even the uncomfortable ones. Don’t shy away from tough questions or hedge your bets. Be real; it’s potentially your best quality. Never stop beating the virulently anti-war drum, but explain how you’d use diplomacy to craft a holistic foreign policy that strays from the last 18 years of hyperinterventionist militarism.
Bang the drum; fight the good fight; and for however long you can stay in the race, force the other Democratic presidential contenders to engage with foreign policy, with the tough questions of war and peace that the party has ignored for so long, at its peril. Offer us a true answer to Trump’s muddled and possibly fraudulent “anti-war” policies.
Do that, and no matter your personal political fate, you’ll have done the nation and Constitution you swore to protect and defend a greater service than you already have. I’ll be there, rooting for you.