There has been a strange shakeup in how partisan Americans view militarism in foreign policy. It used to be the case that Republicans would remain consistently hawkish while Democrats shifted depending on whether or not they controlled the White House. For example, the anti-war Democrats who marched against President Bush’s shock-and-awe invasions later donned a blindfold while President Obama pulverized a few more Middle East countries. One could reasonably expect that Democrats would resurrect pacifism now that Republicans are in power. But this is an unusual administration in many ways. President Trump is averse to starting new interventions abroad, and he’s been comparatively successful in that policy. Even Venezuela couldn’t tempt the United States to intervene, yet.
Now, Democrats are growing increasingly hawkish. In a January 2019 poll by Politico, 59% of respondents who voted for Clinton in 2016 expressed opposition to Trump’s proposed withdrawal from Syria. Most of this is just opposition to whatever Trump does, but a part of it is disguised as principle. They argue that the U.S. must export liberal values by force, if necessary. This is concerning because if Democrats aren’t opposing war, then no one is.
The U.S. needs a foreign policy that blends strategic realpolitik with non-interventionism. Realpolitik refers to diplomacy based on practical or material factors rather than ideological or theoretical ones. Fortunately, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is one Democrat who offers the best chance for this kind of foreign policy. She has spoken against regime change efforts consistently since she joined Congress in 2013. As the Obama Administration crushed Libya into anarchy and armed terrorists in Syria, Gabbard was working with Republican Sen. Rand Paul to introduce the Stop Arming Terrorists Act.
Gabbard even met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on a 2017 fact-finding mission. This drew ire from many of her colleagues, mainly because the rebels seeking to overthrow al-Assad have received armaments and intelligence support from the U.S. since 2013. But one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter. Gabbard was perceptive enough to recognize the Sunni extremism that festered among the U.S.-sponsored rebels, not to mention the repeated instances in history where the U.S. arms today’s friends who turn into tomorrow’s enemies.
Gabbard’s meeting with al-Assad highlights a type of direct and fearless diplomacy that is sorely lacking these days. The U.S. Secretary of State is the nation’s top diplomat, but the last three men to hold that office felt content with timidly orating about superficial liberal values as if they could solve every problem. Rebellion is inspiring, but it can lead to chaos. Justice is noble but sometimes more costly than it’s worth. Democracy is wonderful, but it can be abused by Islamists and polluted by corruption. These are facts in the world, whether we like it or not. If we continue to pursue liberal ends without concern for the means to get there, nor the realities of how attainable those ends truly are, then we run the risk of spreading misery in our short-sighted tunnel vision. Libya has already been subjected to that mistake. The country has suffered from chronic instability, dysfunction and civil war ever since the U.S. and allies toppled its government in 2011.
Gabbard is willing to work with the world as it actually is. Sometimes that means confronting adversaries and leveraging dictators against terrorists. It’s better to softly incentivize reform in an autocratic government than abruptly overthrow it and pretend like the grass is greener on the other side.
Gabbard is currently campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. Her foreign policy philosophy stands out, even amidst other anti-war candidates. Bernie Sanders, for example, is eager to be a peace dove as well, but he has experienced difficulty in articulating his foreign policy ideas to the same extent that he preaches on domestic policy. The problem with having a candidate who focuses so much on domestic policy, like healthcare or inequality, is that it makes them heavily reliant on Congress if they win the White House. The president cannot make law. They can, however, design foreign policy and meet with foreign leaders at will. So it is extremely important for presidential candidates to articulate a concrete, evidence-supported philosophy on foreign policy well before the election.
If Gabbard does not earn the Democratic nomination, then she should be offered the position of Secretary of State in the next presidential term. Her experience on the House Committee on Armed Services suits her for this job. Additionally, she carefully chooses her words and adeptly evades the rhetorical traps that opponents try to pin her into. She’s a formidable negotiator who isn’t shy about meeting with adversaries if it advances U.S. interests like counter-terrorism and regional stability. That’s the kind of person we need to represent the country abroad.