Among the luminaries at the Bernie Sanders rally in Brooklyn's Prospect Park this Sunday, April 17, is to be Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who has emerged as one of the populist candidate's foremost partisans. Gabbard made headlines in February when she stepped down from the Democratic National Committee to endorse Sanders. Her resignation statement (video online at Facebook) railed against "interventionist wars of regime change," winning easy applause from the peaceniks. "As a veteran of two Middle East deployments, I know firsthand the cost of war.," she promisingly opened. But scratch the surface of her rhetoric just a little and it quickly becomes apparent that Gabbard's politics are downright sinister…
Proverbial alarm bells were set off when Alternet reported last year on Gabbard's "curious Islamophobic politics," just as she was becoming an anti-war icon. Especially noted were her links to India's ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "Since her election to Congress, Gabbard has tied herself closely to this party, which has a history of condoning hatred and violence against India's Muslim minority. Many of her stateside donors and supporters are also big supporters of this movement, which disdains secularism and promotes religious sectarianism." She was particularly instrumental in the 2013 defeat of HR 417, which called on India to improve the human rights situation of its religious minorities.
We've noted before the links of some key Democratic Party figures to the BJP, which is accused of instrumenting a genocidal pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002—where India's now-prime minister Narendra Modi was then in charge of the state government. The BJP's ideology of "Hindutva" has roots in classical fascism, and its followers are still implicated in terror against Muslims and secularists today.
But it gets much worse. The Facebook page of a group called the Syrian American Will Association (SAWA) features another video message from Gabbard, plugging HR 4108, which would bar any US support for the Syrian opposition:
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii, asks all Americans, including Syrian Americans, to stand together to end the illegal COUNTERPRODUCTIVE war that aims to over throw [sic] the legal Syrian government. Instead, we should, as Gabbard says, fight against the terrorist extremist Islamic groups that threatens [sic] the safety of the United States.
It takes little sophistication to recognize this as propaganda for the regime of Bashar Assad—who is now escalating to genocide in his war on the Syrian people. First, there is no "illegal COUNTERPRODUCTIVE war that aims to overthrow the legal Syrian government." How many things are wrong just with this one statement? Here's the top three distortions:
1. The US is not fighting Assad. Not with one single bomb. The US is now constraining the rebel forces from fighting Assad, insisting they fight only ISIS. For those paying attention, it is clear that the US is actually tilting to Assad in Syria's internal war. Gabbard's entire schtick is predicated on a fiction.
2. The genocidal Assad dictatorship is not the "legal Syrian government." When you repeatedly violate the Geneva Accords in a counterinsurgency war against your own people, you forfeit any claim to "legality." And at this point, Assad controls only some 20% of the country. Assad is just Syria's most well-armed (and bloodiest) warlord, with powerful foreign patrons—but nothing more.
3. Why is ISIS "terrorist extremist" and a "threat to civilization" (as Gabbard says in the video) but not Assad, who has actually killed far more people?
The fictional premise of Gabbard's statement betrays that it is really about propaganda, not legislation. And it is certainly not about opposition to "intervention." The video makes clear Gabbard supports intervention against ISIS and Nusra. Is it propaganda in support of Assad.
Nor are SAWA's pro-regime politics difficult to discern. Thier About Us page purports to tell "The Truth about Syria," repeatedly urging the White House to "cooperate with Assad against the IS," and applauding Egyptian dictator al-Sisi for his "tilt to Damascus."
As for the part about ISIS "threatening the safety of the United States," this is more imperial narcissism that makes the question all about "us." The Syrians can die by their thousands, as long as ISIS doesn't attack the West. But even this is based on a fallacy, because both Assad and ISIS are overwhelmingly fighting the Syrian opposition forces. Yes, they have also fought each other, but that is clearly a secondary priority for both of them! (Not to mention that Assad has abetted the rise of ISIS by buying their oil.)
The Sanders-Gabbard alliance is a part of the paradoxical leftist convergence with the paleocons—that wing of the Beltway elite that seeks "stability" under authoritarian regimes, and rejects the "regime change" hubris of the neocons. That's another part of the imperial narcissism: seeing every revolution or uprising in the Middle East as some Washington-instrumented "regime change" conspiracy. This sheds light on Bernie's disturbing habit of replying to any question about the Middle East by pointing out that Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq war in 2003. Iraq in 2003 is not Syria in 2016, and it is towering arrogance—more than a hint racist—to view them as the same. Iraq was arbitrarily invaded by a superpower. Syria's war began with a popular uprising. The school-children who painted anti-regime slogans on a wall in Deraa in March 2011—for which they were detained and tortured, thereby sparking the uprising—were presumably not acting under CIA orders! It was the regime's serial massacres of peaceful, secular pro-democracy protesters that sent Syria over the edge into civil war. And despite all the sectarian terror and foreign intrigue, there is still a revolution in Syria. As soon as there was a lull in the fighting with the (partial) "ceasefire" that took effect last month, the civil resistance re-emerged to fill the streets with protests demanding the fall of the regime—reminiscent of those back in the spring of 2011.
We're afraid all this further reveals the obvious: Bernie Sanders is totally out of his depth on foreign policy, especially regarding the Middle East. We fear that if some fluke of the system actually put him in the Oval Office, he could be putty in the hands of the paleocons just as Dubya was putty in the hands of the neocons. And contrary to much current confusion on the "left" (which conflates anti-imperialism with right-wing isolationism) that is no better.
Gabbard's paleoconservatism is of a particularly distasteful variety, however. Check out her cloying YouTube video in which she delivers drippy New Age platitudes in an homage to the Hare Krishna cult. This kind of hippie pro-fascism is usually clueless, with peaceniks simply incapable of grasping that there can be any evil in the world not directly hatched by Washington. In Gabbard's case, it seems worse than that. She appears to know exactly what she is doing.
Bernie Sanders needs to make immediately clear that he does not share Gabbard's pro-Assad position—if not repudiate her support entirely. And all his supporters need to urgently call him out on this.