2020 Democratic hopeful Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) used the phrase “regime change war” nine times during Tuesday’s presidential primary debate in response to a question about America’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.
The phrase is meant to signal to those on the left that she’s not like the warmongering establishment politicians who think all problems can be solved by sending a few thousand troops to exert America’s will abroad. It’s meant to remind voters that she, a veteran of the ill-fated regime change war in Iraq, knows better.
But “regime change war” is an inaccurate description of America’s role in Syria: U.S. involvement has been haphazard and inconsistent — but neither President Barack Obama nor President Donald Trump has tried to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. The slaughter in Syria was not, as Gabbard claimed, entirely prompted by U.S. troops, but by Assad, who has responded to popular protests by killing those who oppose his rule.
Decrying the “regime change war” in Syria is also a convenient obfuscation of Gabbard’s own foreign policy, which is more aligned with Trump’s views than with those of the progressive voters she was appealing to on Tuesday.
As a member of Congress, Gabbard has joined Republicans in excoriating Obama for declining to describe members of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS, as “radical Islamic terrorists” — a decision clearly meant to avoid linking Islam with terrorism. Gabbard also aligned with the GOP in supporting a 2015 bill to freeze the admission of Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS — an effort Trump would later implement through executive action.
Despite positioning herself as a non-interventionist, Gabbard has cheered U.S. drone strikes and special forces operations against suspected militants, which have resulted in civilian casualties with little accountability or oversight. Arms dealers have taken note: Lockheed Martin and Boeing were two of Gabbard’s largest donors during the 2016 election.
“In short, when it comes to the war against terrorists, I’m a hawk,” she told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in 2016. “When it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I’m a dove.”
When Gabbard cautions against “wars of regime change,” she is usually referring to dictators who are facing popular uprisings at home. But Gabbard isn’t just against U.S. intervention in these situations — she’s often an ardent supporter of authoritarians who are overseeing human rights abuses against their citizens.
Gabbard has met with Assad, questioned whether he used chemical weapons against his people, and defended him as the last line of defense against al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria. She has also met with Egyptian strongman Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, whose regime has massacred protesters. Sisi, according to a press release from Gabbard, has shown “great courage and leadership in taking on this extreme Islamist ideology.” She has aligned herself with far-right Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was once denied a visa to enter the U.S. because of his support of anti-Muslim riots in India.
Gabbard’s support for dictators and her enthusiasm for tackling “radical Islam” has endeared her to the Trump administration. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and an ardent nationalist, arranged for her to meet with Trump during the transition and reportedly wanted her to join the administration. Gabbard described her conversation with Trump as “frank and positive” and said she felt it was important to take the meeting “before the drumbeats of war that neocons have been beating drag us into an escalation of the war to overthrow the Syrian government.”