Since her entry into the Democratic presidential primary race, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been running against war. Gabbard, a National Guard major who served twice in the Middle East, launched her campaign by telling CNN, “There is one main issue that is central to the rest, and that is the issue of war and peace.”
In June, she used a primary debate to blast President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of America’s nuclear arms agreement with Iran, warning that “Donald Trump and his chickenhawk cabinet—Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and others—are creating a situation where a spark would light a war with Iran.” But she also went after her own party’s acquiescence to permanent war, asking Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan (who has since exited the race), “Will you tell the parents of those two soldiers that were killed [recently] in Afghanistan that we have to be engaged? That is unacceptable. We have lost so many lives. We have spent so much money.”
Gabbard’s staunch anti-war stance has led to accusations of disloyalty and even possible foreign allegiances, with 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton musing in October that a Democratic candidate was likely being “groomed” to play spoiler in the 2020 race. That candidate, Clinton warned without explicitly naming Gabbard, “is the favorite of the Russians.” Gabbard shot back that she was running for president to “undo Mrs. Clinton’s failed legacy.” The fight seemed to work to Gabbard’s benefit: After polling near the bottom of the field for much of the summer, the Hawaiian’s numbers have shot up in the important early primary state of New Hampshire.
In October, Gabbard sat down with Reason‘s John Stossel to talk about the pitfalls of endless war, the pros and cons of expanding Medicare and government-funded college, and why military spending is every bit as important as health care.
Reason: You often say you know the costs of war. What do you mean?
Tulsi Gabbard: I am a soldier. I have been serving in the Army National Guard now for over 16 years, and I deployed twice to the Middle East. I’ve served in Congress now for nearly seven years on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Armed Services Committee, and the Homeland Security Committee. And so from both perspectives, I understand the importance of our national security.
As a soldier, I served in a field medical unit in Iraq in 2005, during the height of the war. Our camp was about 40 miles north of Baghdad, and it was something every day that we all experienced firsthand: the terribly high human cost of war—of our fellow soldiers, friends of ours, who were killed in combat. And the toll that continues now with veterans coming home with visible and invisible wounds, dealing with post-traumatic stress.
You’ve said the best way to honor our troops is to make combat the last option. We don’t do that?
We have to honor our servicemen and women by only sending them on missions that are worthy of their sacrifice. Now, like so many Americans after Al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11, I made the decision to join our military. To enlist, to be able to go after and defeat those who attacked us on that day, to defeat that great evil that visited us.
Unfortunately, since that time, our leaders failed us. Instead of focusing on defeating Al Qaeda, they’ve instead used that attack on 9/11 to begin to wage a whole series of counterproductive regime-change wars, overthrowing authoritarian dictators in other countries. Wars that’ve proven to be very costly to our service members, to the American people—
Plus to Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi.
Hussein, Gadhafi, and the ongoing regime change that’s still happening in Syria today.
So in Afghanistan, you would’ve gotten out when?
Go in, defeat Al Qaeda, get out. That’s what should’ve happened. Instead, what we’re seeing now is a very long, protracted, ambiguous mission where no one really knows what “winning” looks like. And the ensuing nation building that’s followed in these different wars, that’s taken so much of our resources, our taxpayer dollars, out of where they should have been dedicated—in nation building and serving the needs of our people right here at home.
If we just pulled out, wouldn’t there be more slaughter?
If we stay focused on what our mission and objectives should be, which is the safety and security of the American people, then we end up saving a whole lot of lives [and] we end up saving a whole lot of taxpayer dollars. The conflict and the complexities and the challenges, for example in Afghanistan, that we’re seeing continuing over the years and through today are things that only the Afghan people can resolve. What we’ve got to stay focused on is how we ensure the safety and security of the American people.
There seldom is a discussion that I’ve heard asking, “What is our mission?”
That’s exactly the problem. Before sending our men and women into harm’s way, we’re not hearing, “What is the problem that we’re trying to solve, and what is the clear, achievable goal that we’re sending them to do?” Without that, we end up with the result that we have, where we have troops who are deployed in these countries without a real understanding of what they’re there to accomplish, and at what point they’ve accomplished that and then can come home.
Let me get your response to this op-ed in The New York Times from some years back about Syria: “Five reasons to intervene in Syria now: It would diminish Iran’s influence in the Arab world.”
Let’s look at what’s happened in Syria. Because of the regime-change war that we’ve waged there, because of the regime-change war that we waged in Iraq, Iran has far more influence in both of those countries than they did prior to our going in. This is exactly one of the [times] where we see how our intervention has been counterproductive to our own interests.
The argument was that this could keep the conflict from spreading to Lebanon and Iraq.
Once again, look at the costs that the Syrian people have paid as a price and the impact that it’s had on the region as a whole.
Something that these articles often fail to recognize is that terrorism groups like Al Qaeda and offshoots like ISIS have been strengthened, to the point where now we just observed the 18th anniversary of the attack on 9/11, and Al Qaeda is stronger today than they were in 2001 when they launched that attack.
But there is a human rights crisis in Syria, and our hearts go out to them. We want to help.
Absolutely. We want to help. What we have been doing has been making the problem worse. This is what is so often the case when these regime-change wars are waged in the guise of humanitarianism, saying, “There are people suffering under an authoritarian regime. We have to go in and help them.”
But if you look at these examples throughout our country’s history, our going in and toppling that brutal dictator has not made their lives any better. [It has] resulted in more death, more destruction, more pain and suffering, more refugees. This is why we’ve got to stop being the world’s police. If we want to be a force for good in the world, let’s actually make sure that what we are doing effects a good outcome.
So what’s going on with your party? Democrats used to be the anti-war party.
Unfortunately, this is something that crosses both parties. I call out leaders in my own party and leaders in the Republican Party as well, who are heavily influenced by the military-industrial complex that profits heavily off of us continuing to wage these counterproductive wars.
They’re heavily influenced by the foreign-policy establishment in Washington, whose whole power base is built around continuing this status quo. So much so to the point where, when I’m calling for an end to these wasteful wars, they’re saying, “Well, gosh, Tulsi. Why are you such an isolationist?” As though the only way that we can relate with other countries in the world is by bombing them or putting crippling economic sanctions in place. Rather than seeing, “Hey, we’re the United States of America. We have the opportunity to be a force for good. To reach out to other countries. To show respect. To find those areas of common interest where we can work together for the well-being of our people and the planet. To be able to work out those differences that we have rather than resorting to war.”
If you were president a few years back, what would the alternative have been with Syria? How would we have worked with them?
Well, first of all, making sure that we don’t launch a regime-change war. That war began, a lot of people don’t realize, all the way back in 2011. And it began with a covert mission working through the CIA to arm and equip and provide support to terrorist groups in that country, like Al Qaeda, to overthrow the Syrian government.
This is something that has now been published out in the open. And it continued to further escalate, both through covert and overt means, using the Department of Defense.
Now we have the conflict with Iran.
They apparently were responsible for the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia. What would you do?
If I were president today, I would end this cycle of retaliation, this tit for tat that we’re seeing. What happened in Saudi Arabia was an act of retaliation to the sanctions and the blockade against Iran, basically stopping them from being able to sell any of their oil on the market.
You’d remove the sanctions.
I would get Iran and the United States to re-enter the Iran Nuclear Agreement, to make sure that Iran is not continuing to move forward in building a nuclear weapon. Get those inspectors back in there. And I would remove those crippling sanctions.
I’m going to quote Sen. Lindsey Graham: “A weak response invites more aggression.”
So if we do what Lindsey Graham says and we come in with a strong response, a retaliatory attack, how does then Iran respond? These are the questions that these policy makers and the media too often don’t ask….If we follow down the Lindsey Graham approach, what we end up with is an escalation of this tit for tat: retaliation, attack, counterattack, counterattack. And what it’ll result in is an all-out inferno, not only in Iran but across the entire region.
It’s unimaginable to think about how many servicemen and women would lose their lives in such a war. How many people in the region would be killed, refugees forced to flee. And how many more trillions of our taxpayer dollars would be taken out of our pockets, out of our communities, to go and pay for a war that is completely unnecessary and that actually undermines our national security.
Let’s move to a domestic area where you agree with libertarians. America locks up an unusual number of people: 2 million at the moment. More than Russia or China.
Our criminal justice system is so broken, and it’s perpetuating the problems that have caused this kind of mass incarceration that we’ve seen. I have the only bipartisan bill in Congress that would end the federal marijuana prohibition.
This is one easy first step that we can take to begin to end this failed war on drugs that has unnecessarily filled our prisons, and that has really been a drain on our resources, both from the law enforcement perspective as well as within our criminal justice system.
People say it’s a gateway drug and the country has to send the message to children that it’s not OK. You’re going to let it be legal everywhere?
We should. This is a free country. I’ve never smoked marijuana. I never will. I’ve never drank alcohol. I’ve chosen not to in my life. But this is about free choice, and if somebody wants to do that, our country should not be making a criminal out of them for doing so. I think this is the hypocrisy of the argument that we’ve heard since this war on drugs began, which is, “We really care about you. We really care about your kids. So if you are caught using this drug, we care so much about you that we’re going to arrest you, and we’re going to give you a criminal record, because we don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
So once we’re an adult, we own our own bodies and we ought to be able to poison them if we want?
But you haven’t proposed legalizing heroin or cocaine or meth?
That’s the direction that we need to take: decriminalizing an individual’s choice to use whatever substances that are there, while still criminalizing those who are traffickers and dealers of these drugs.
But I’m confused by that. Because you say, and I agree, “It’s my body, let me do what I want.”
But you call the sellers “traffickers.” They’re only traffickers because it’s illegal. Isn’t that hypocritical? You can use it but nobody can sell it to you?
No, it’s not at all. I think there’s a difference here, where you have those who are profiting off of selling substances that are harmful to others, as opposed to those who are making those choices on their own to do what they wish with their bodies.
There are some models of this in other countries who’ve taken this approach. What we’ve seen in Portugal is how they are not treating drug use as a criminal action but instead as a health care one. For those who are dealing with substance abuse and addiction, rather than throwing them in prison and giving them a criminal record, we’re actually providing them with the treatment that will get them and their lives back on track.
That’s been good in Portugal. There are even fewer people using drugs now.
That’s exactly right.
The leader in the Democratic primary race is Elizabeth Warren. Are you happy with that? Obviously, you would rather it be you.
I’m focused on our campaign and how we can continue to connect with voters in early states and all across the country, and sharing with them the kind of leadership that I would bring.
Your campaign pitch has been: Instead of all this military spending, focus on rebuilding communities at home.
We are in a new Cold War. We have escalating tensions between the United States and nuclear-armed countries like Russia and China—a new arms race. Trump tore up that [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] treaty that [Ronald] Reagan and [Mikhail] Gorbachev negotiated, sparking off billions more dollars to build these missiles that were banned under that treaty.
All of this amounts to an incredible cost that, whether they realize it or not, every single one of us as taxpayers are paying. Those dollars should either be used to decrease the deficit that we have or to serve the needs of our people.
But you would still have a military, right? How much would it be cut? How much would be left?
I don’t think it’s an arbitrary number. I think, once again, focus on what is our objective. Our objective must be to have a strong and ready, capable military able to fulfill their mission of protecting and defending our country and the American people.
We’ve got troops who are deployed in so many countries around the world.
Something like 80 countries.
But the questions that aren’t really asked, even in the Armed Services Committee where I serve, are, “Well, how many of those countries actually require a prolonged U.S. presence to serve our interests?”
So what happens in the Committee?
Here’s the issue. There’s this fearful word called “BRAC”—Base Realignment and Closing—right? People actually vote against that commission from doing their job, which is to look at these bases around the world and here at home and say, “Hey, do we still need them? Are they still performing a necessary function for our national security? And if not, let’s repurpose them or shut them down.”
We should explain this for people who don’t know what BRAC is. It was created because the military wanted to close some bases. But the local congresspersons said, “Oh, not my base.”
So they then said, “We’ll create a committee so that you politicians won’t have to take the heat.”
Exactly. Create a commission who can be the neutral arbiters. The member of Congress [will be able to] say, “Well, hey, this commission is the one who decided this.” But still the member of Congress fights against what that commission has recommended, rather, once again, than looking at this from an objective perspective, of being responsible caretakers for the taxpayer dollar and looking at what is actually necessary for our military to be able to do the job of protecting and defending our country. So I think there’s a huge opportunity to reduce defense spending in that area.
You would reduce military spending and spend that money domestically. You want Medicare for All.
I want to see Medicare Choice. So right now, as people, we’re spending far more on health care than any other developed country in the world….I agree with the concept of Medicare for All, what I would call Medicare Choice, because it provides for that lower-cost quality health care for every American, regardless of how little you may have in your pocket. But also allowing for those who, if you want to keep your employer-sponsored health care plan, or if you’ve got a union that’s negotiated a great health care plan, or if you just as a private citizen would rather pay into a private complementary plan, you should have the freedom to do so.
And we can afford this? Bernie Sanders, who promotes it, admits it will cost $3 trillion [annually]. Cutting unnecessary military spending will be enough?
By bringing down our defense spending, by ending these wasteful wars, [by stopping] the new Cold War arms race, we’re bringing back a lot of resources that would otherwise continue to be spent there.
With health care, we’re reducing the costs. This is the key component: We’re already paying for this one way or the other. Right now I get a certain chunk of money taken out of my paycheck every month that goes to Blue Cross Blue Shield for the insurance for my family. Instead of that amount of money going to Blue Cross Blue Shield, then that amount of money would instead be going to a Medicare Choice plan, except it would be less.
Much as I would like to cut the military, I don’t see how you can get the money, because the military’s entire budget is $700 billion. That’s a long way from $3 trillion.
It’s actually more. It’s actually more. I mean, $700 billion is the direct amount every year that goes to the Department of Defense. But that does not include the hundreds of millions of dollars that go towards the slush fund—the Overseas Contingency Operations fund—which has no constraints on how the Department of Defense is spending those dollars. Those are not accounted for within that budget.
OK, add $100 billion or $200 billion. It still comes nowhere close to what you and your fellow Democrats want to spend. Free college, Medicare for All—we can’t afford this stuff. Don’t you think colleges already waste a lot of money?
They do. Absolutely. And that’s why I think those who are talking about free college—I think that we do need to make sure that our young people are getting opportunity, whether it’s for vocational training, apprenticeships, college, community college. There’s a lot of opportunities there for people to get the skills that they need. But in order to do this, we have to address the overarching issue, which is: Why is it costing more and more and more every single year?…This is the problem. Just throwing more money at it isn’t going to solve it. So we have to deal with the systemic problem here, the root cause of the problem.
I spoke with a college professor recently about this issue. He said, “You want to see why it’s costing more and more? Why don’t you look at how much administrators of a lot of these colleges are being paid, or overpaid?” Let’s actually see where these dollars are going. Let’s look at the fact that these universities, many of them, don’t have any kind of accountability or transparency [in terms of student outcomes].
I’m glad we can have a civil argument about some of these areas where we disagree. Few politicians want to do that anymore.
It’s unfortunate, isn’t it? This is a problem that we’re seeing in our political culture today….Our leaders are increasingly unwilling to sit down with those who may be “on the other team.” Even those who are asking to lead our country. I think this is how we move forward together.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a video version, visit reason.com.