The Democrats used to be the peace party. While Democratic presidents led our entry into both World Wars and endorsed containment during the early stages of the Cold War, since Vietnam the Democrats have favored a more consensus-oriented foreign policy that takes a dim view of American military intervention. They were critical of our support for military regimes in Central America, the Contras, and even the First Gulf War. During the George W. Bush years, they were united in opposition to the Iraq War.
With the rise of Donald Trump and his pragmatic “America First” brand of disengagement, the polarity between the two parties has reversed. While we saw a preview of this reversal in reactions to the Mattis resignation, it has become more apparent in the angry, dismissive, and hostile reception to U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard’s (D-Hawaii) official presidential campaign announcement. Criticism came not only from the neoconservative Right—whose confusion about what constitutes America’s interest is legendary—but also from the mainstream Left.
Gabbard is unique in that she is one of the only Democrats who may be described as the voice of peace and reason. She has been critical of U.S. intervention in Syria, our cozy relationship with the Saudi regime, and our continuing cultivation of conflict with Russia.
Republicans Were Defined by the Iraq War During the Bush Years
While perennial warmongering may be expected from the Max Boots and Bret Stephens of the world, the change among the Democrats has been jarring and sudden. After 9/11, Bush took an aggressive approach fueled by a strong streak of idealism. He saw the 9/11 attacks not merely as an isolated event involving al-Qaeda, but conceived of Islamic terrorism as a maladaptive response to the region’s backwards, kleptocratic dictatorships. He thought hopelessly outnumbered American forces could transform Iraq and the rest of the region into stable, liberal democracies.
As he put the matter, “They fight because they know that the survival of their hateful ideology is at stake. They know that as freedom takes root in Iraq, it will inspire millions across the Middle East to claim their liberty as well. And when the Middle East grows in democracy, prosperity and hope, the terrorists will lose their sponsors, lose their recruits and lose their hopes for turning that region into a base for attacks on America and our allies around the world.”
Thus, the solution to terrorism, the logic went, was to root out these structures aggressively and preemptively. We would give them freedom.
The showcase of the strategy was the Iraq War, where a stable if not terribly friendly secular dictatorship was in place. Iraq’s noninvolvement with 9/11 and the possible consequences of destabilizing this counterweight to Iran were less relevant than its status as a nondemocratic regime. In other words, the talk about spreading democracy was not merely window dressing to sell a realpolitik solution to a decades-long thorn in America’s side; the Bush Administration really believed it, just as it believed the “religion of peace” nonsense.
Both John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 ran as peace candidates, pledging their desire to withdraw from the Iraq War. These were the years of Code Pink, “no blood for oil,” Cindy Sheehan, constant hand-wringing over the rights of terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, and a unified opposition to the “cowboy” approach of George W. Bush. Emblematically, the corpulent Michael Moore sat with former President Jimmy Carter at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Kerry narrowly lost, but Obama won against the even more martial John McCain.
In 2011, Obama kept his campaign promise and pulled our troops from Iraq. He only reluctantly added troops to Afghanistan, but said from the beginning they also would be reduced in short order. He strengthened America’s ties to the United Nations, made a big show of his willingness to meet with hostile foreign leaders, endorsed the Paris climate agreement, and generally acted in the diffident and cloying manner of the post-Vietnam Democrats. He was against not only war, but uncomfortable with U.S. leadership and strength.
Obama Ran as a Peace Candidate, But Soon Learned the Ways of the Swamp
Then came the Arab Spring. Obama acceded to European requests for U.S. support in Libya, never wondering if they might themselves be pursuing a mere war for oil. He also yanked support for Egypt’s military regime, which had been a stalwart ally of the United States and opponent of Islamic extremism, from which its own rule was threatened. Finally, Obama got our forces involved in Syria, first to depose the regime of Bashar al-Assad and then, at least in part, to address ISIS.
Republicans mostly supported Obama in these efforts, rarely criticizing any of these goals, but occasionally criticizing their execution, such as Obama’s failure to enforce his poorly thought-out Syrian “red line.” Even so, Obama’s presidency became as interventionist as his predecessor’s, and it suffered comparatively little criticism or pushback from the Left and the now-dormant antiwar movement.
The movement turned out to have been more nakedly partisan than its broad criticism of the Iraq War would have suggested. When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016, she suggested that she would be tough, building on the efforts of the Obama Administration, where she was somewhat of a hawk as secretary of state. But Americans voted for a third way, neither traditionally Republican nor ideologically pacifist. While it’s doubtful the pacifists of the Code Pink variety went for Trump, a great many Republicans had soured on two decades of inconclusive war ushered in by 9/11, preferring instead to ensure our security with stronger borders and more restrictive immigration controls. Trump’s victory struck a blow against the Democrats as well as the interventionist Republican establishment.
An Interesting Choice Among the 2020 Democratic Field
The 2020 Democratic primary, like the 2016 Republican primary, will offer a lot of choices. So far, the various wings of the party are represented, including relative moderates like former Health and Human Services Secretary Julian Castro and former West Virginia State Senator Richard Ojeda; leftists like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris; and hints of an entry by establishment types like Joe Biden. Gabbard, like Trump, does not fit neatly into any of these categories.
Of course, she is a Democrat. She is pro-abortion, has changed her once-critical views on gay rights, and advocates universal healthcare. She even left the DNC in 2016 in order to support Bernie Sanders. To her credit, she has also taken on her own party for the casual and now pervasive anti-Christian bigotry levied against Republican judicial nominees.
But the greatest distinction between Gabbard and other Democrats arises from her views on foreign policy: she, like Trump, advocates a less interventionist approach to the Middle East, while seeing clearly and speaking plainly about the threats of Islamic terrorism. She has been an outspoken critic of U.S. policy in Syria, culminating in a 2017 trip during which she met with Syrian President Assad. She has criticized the Pakistani and Saudi regimes for their Islamic extremism, advocating instead a stronger U.S. relationship with India. She has reached out to the Trump Administration and praised the withdrawal from Syria. She has no small number of fans among the dissident Right; Steve Bannon has spoken highly of her, for example.
Gabbard has more than average credibility in this area. Unlike anyone else running for president—save West Virginian Ojeda—she is a veteran of Iraq, continuing to serve today as a major in the Hawaiian National Guard. “War and Peace” are the centerpiece of her campaign and the source of most of the friction and criticism she has received from mainstream Democrats.
Of course, one might think the disaster in Syria, which followed the templates of Iraq and Libya, might give some more of the “smart set” reason to pause, but there is no such self-awareness among our elite. Gabbard has been called alternately a “Putin puppet” and an “Assad shill” for pointing out the obvious about our simultaneous opposition to the Assad regime and that regime’s mortal enemy, ISIS.
Gabbard deserves real credit for her honesty and moral courage. While such courage is often praised after the fact, in real time, it has substantial and immediate costs. There is strong political and financial pressures on junior congressional leaders not to make waves, but instead to go along and get along, looking out for their most important constituents: fellow members of the government, the military industrial complex, and the donor class. Her rarity in this regard is noteworthy.
Gabbard is the Anti-Establishment Choice for Democrats
One important quality in a leader is the ability to learn. Many conservatives, including me, were caught up in the enthusiasm for the Iraq War. Only later, after the accumulation of failures and the revelation of its false premises, did it become clear what a disaster our nation had embarked upon. Today, we remain in Afghanistan, with the same inconclusive, grinding, never-ending insurgency campaign.
These types of wars, as well as our quixotic attempt to maintain “unipolarity” more generally, are costly and potentially could unleash Armageddon. I have grown more sympathetic with those who opposed the Vietnam War as well as the Iraq War upon further reflection. War is truly a terrible thing, should be a last resort, and so often starts with hubris and optimism and ends in tears. It should only be pursued with a clear plan and a realistic path to victory.
I suspect many Democratic voters remain as skeptical of these never-ending wars as their impassioned rhetoric during the Iraq War would suggest. The only people who lack this skepticism are the so-called experts, but their predictions and results have been abysmal. With Gabbard, the Democrats have a chance to reject the consensus views of our incompetent elite, a consensus that accords so little with the interests, wants, and common sense of the governed.
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