Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been a rising star in progressive circles, which makes her meeting Monday with President-elect Donald Trump highly unusual, at least at first glance.
Gabbard, a favorite of incoming White House senior counselor Steve Bannon, is the first congressional Democrat approached to have a face-to-face meeting with Trump—and the first Bernie Sanders supporter to do so as well. Sensing criticism from the left for taking a meeting with Trump, she put out a statement in which she justified her foreign policy meeting as necessary so that the left and right could find “common ground.”
But she also included pro-Assad apologia in the mix, arguing that the United States should not confront Russia because it could lead to conflict and indicating that the Assad regime should remain in place, calling any attempts to remove him as “illegal.”
“I shared with him my grave concerns that escalating the war in Syria by implementing a so-called no fly/safe zone would be disastrous for the Syrian people, our country, and the world,” Gabbard said. “It would lead to more death and suffering, exacerbate the refugee crisis, strengthen ISIS and al Qaeda, and bring us into a direct conflict with Russia which could result in a nuclear war.”
That might sound like standard issue progressive anti-war rhetoric, but coupled with her past statements and actions, it’s more of a plea to let Assad be. In March, for instance, Gabbard was the only Democrat and one of just three members of Congress to vote against a resolution condemning violence by the Assad regime against civilian populations.
And she has long been a defender of the Putin regime, writing for example in September 2015, on the first day of the Russian intervention in Syria, “[I]t’s mind-boggling that we protest Russia’s bombing of these terrorists.” Russia is responsible for attacking U.S.-backed opposition forces in Syria, an aid convoy delivering relief to civilians, and medical facilities.
By taking the meeting with Trump and making such a statement afterward, critics argue, Gabbard is giving the Trump administration the guise of bipartisan support for ignoring Assad’s war crimes, which include bombing civilian populations and the use of chemical weapons. Gabbard and Trump also see eye to eye on closing the door on refugees.
“For years, both individuals have advocated a free pass for murderous dictators, while intensifying scrutiny on mothers and children sitting in refugee camps who would like to come to the United States,” said Evan Barrett, a political adviser to the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a Syrian-American opposition umbrella group. “Tulsi is very much a part of the inward-facing mind-set that gave us President-elect Trump, and no one should be surprised when they join hands to appease despots and shut the door to the world’s most desperate people.”
“Some of the great acts of genocide in history are taking place while we are discussing issues of far less importance,” Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain said over the weekend at the Halifax International Security Conference, chiding journalists and policymakers alike for focusing on Cabinet appointment rumors and not policy issues.
Ultimately, the meeting between Trump and Gabbard signals a Trump administration tilt toward appeasement of autocrats and those who until this new administration would be viewed almost universally as pariahs.
“I felt it important to take the opportunity to meet with the President-elect now before the drumbeats of war that neocons have been beating drag us into an escalation of the war to overthrow the Syrian government,” Gabbard said Monday in her statement, an odd remark considering that President-elect Trump is anything but a neocon.
And her statement was telling: She expressed concern that the Syrian government not be overthrown but left absent any concern for the hundreds of thousands who have died in that country at its hands.