The Real Trouble With Tulsi
Hillary Clinton has a habit of picking fights that backfire on her. The most consequential case was the decision of her supporters in the Democratic National Committee in 2015 to enhance the visibility of extremist Republicans like Donald Trump, who would function as “pied pipers” pulling the GOP away from the center. In a notorious memo from April 2015, Clinton’s brain trust decided that “we need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to them seriously [sic].” This bit of Machiavellian cunning did not end well.
Now, for inexplicable reasons, Clinton is replicating the tactic of elevating fringe voices, but doing it for the left. In an episode of the Campaign HQ podcast that aired Thursday, Clinton attacked Green Party leader Jill Stein as “a Russian asset” and claimed that a presidential hopeful, clearly an allusion to Representative Tulsi Gabbard, was being groomed to be a Russian asset as well. “I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate,” Clinton said. “She’s the favorite of the Russians.”
Clinton was amplifying an accusation that has been making the rounds among her inner circle and sympathetic media outlets. A recent New York Times article cited a former Clinton adviser for the claim that Gabbard was “a potentially useful vector for Russian efforts to sow division within the Democratic Party.”
Both these accusations were made without evidence. Equally troubling is the fact that they relied on the weaselly spy-world usage of the word “asset.” A Russian asset, in secret agent lingo, can be a spy or a conscious collaborator. But the term can also refer to someone who is unwittingly promoting Russian interests and unknowingly gets Russian assistance for doing so. That assistance can take so intangible and ephemeral a form as being retweeted on Twitter. And since the “promotion” is in the eyes of the beholder, it’s a smear that can’t be defended against.
Indeed, the term “asset” lends itself to turning any dissent from America’s foreign policy consensus into evidence of treason if it gets applauded abroad. It’s virtually impossible to have any form of anti-war politics or international solidarity that doesn’t get praised or promoted by some foreigner. By this rhetorical slight-of-hand, those who opposed the Vietnam War could be described as Ho Chi Mihn’s “assets.” And often were.
Gabbard responded to Clinton’s accusation with characteristic vim and energy, tweeting, “Thank you @HillaryClinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain.”
More surprising was the heartening defense offered by Gabbard’s fellow presidential hopefuls. Asked about the accusation that Gabbard was being groomed to be a Russian asset, Pete Buttigieg said, “There is no basis for that.” Beto O’Rourke told reporters, “Tulsi is not being groomed by anyone. She is her own person. Obviously has served this country, continues to serve this country in uniform, in Congress, as a candidate for presidency so I think those facts speak for themselves.”
The upshot of Clinton’s intervention was surely the opposite of what she intended: Tulsi Gabbard was elevated in public discourse, the beneficiary of an enormous amount of free publicity and the recipient of kind words from her rivals. Gabbard’s Twitter account gained 50,000 new followers after Clinton’s barrage. Clinton had made herself into Gabbard’s asset.
But Clinton’s typically inept foray into the presidential primaries shouldn’t be an excuse to uncritically celebrate Gabbard as an anti-war hero. Although she can be an impassioned critic of the foreign policy consensus and its addiction to endless regime change wars, Gabbard’s own alternative is deeply troubling.
Gabbard is an exotic figure in American politics, one who elides the typical categories of the political spectrum and is perhaps a harbinger of a new politics. The child of a Samoan father and a white mother, she grew up in Hawaii in a family under the sway of the Science of Identity Foundation, a synthetic new religion with roots in the Hare Krishna movement. Journalists profiling her in The New Yorker and New York magazine have tried, with limited success, to gauge the impact on Gabbard of her guru, Chris Butler, the founder of the Science of Identity Foundation. It’s clear that the fierce homophobia she displayed when she was younger was rooted in her religion.
Gabbard has long abandoned that homophobia, citing her experiences as a soldier in the Iraq War as teaching her the dangers of theocracy. She joined the Hawaii Army National Guard in 2004 and served in a combat zone until 2005. Aside from changing her mind about the role of religion in politics, her service has also made her skeptical of large-scale military invasions.
But as Branco Marcetic noted in an acute critique in Jacobin, Gabbard’s opposition to a particular style of war doesn’t make her anti-war. Rather than large-scale invasions, Gabbard believes in fighting wars using drones and small commando units carrying out assassinations. “In short, when it comes to the war against terrorists, I’m a hawk,” Gabbard told a newspaper in 2018. “When it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I’m a dove.” As Marcetic notes, “Gabbard is offering nationalism in antiwar garb, reinforcing instead of undercutting the toxic rhetoric that treats foreigners as less deserving of dignity than Americans.”
Gabbard’s hawkish nationalism, with a strong undercurrent of Islamophobia, has manifested itself in many forms. Like the reactionary right, she frames the problem of terrorism in religious terms and mocked Barack Obama for his refusal to say “radical Islamic terrorism.” Gabbard opposed the Iran nuclear deal. She’s worked to limit the number of Muslim refugees America takes in. She’s also celebrated authoritarian leaders who have cracked down on political Islam, ranging from Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
These are all positions that bring her in alignment with the Trumpian right, a congruence she has occasionally pursued by trying to work with reactionaries. In the early days of the Trump administration, she met with the president and there was talk of her being offered a position in his government. Erstwhile Trump adviser Steven Bannon talked up Gabbard, saying he “loves her” and “she gets the foreign policy stuff, the Islamic terrorism stuff.” The rumored position never materialized, but she was clearly more open to engaging with Trump than were almost all other Democrats.
Gabbard is the farthest thing from being a Russian asset. She is someone who has let her understandable and justified anti-war instincts take her to a narrow nationalism.
The proper contrast is not Gabbard with Hillary Clinton but Gabbard with Bernie Sanders. Sanders is equally anti-war, but is crafting a foreign policy based on constructive engagement with the world through diplomacy and working on shared problems like climate change.
It’s crucial to defend Gabbard from Clinton’s smear, which is rooted in a pernicious tendency of centrists to see criticism of the status quo as treason. But rejecting an unsavory attack on Gabbard doesn’t preclude rejecting her on other grounds.