This past week, two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman were crippled with explosions that have set the region on edge and sparked concerns that the United States and Iran could soon engage in a bloody war with massive international ramifications.
With little information made public, the Trump administration has begun making the case for a potential conflict, blaming Iran and pointing to a grainy video as proof of its culpability. In response, Iran has pushed back, saying the American accusation that it is involved in the gulf incidents is “not only not funny ... but alarming and worrisome”. And, throughout it all, international leaders have been mobilised to try and quell the rising drumbeat of war.
Meanwhile, worlds away from the Middle East, congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has been framing her presidential candidacy on avoiding this type of sabre rattling. While some of her better-known Democratic rivals have focused on healthcare or climate change as the number one concern, the army veteran has instead cited nuclear war and US regime-change policy as the number one threat to the the country she hopes to lead.
That position has pit the Hawaiian against a foreign policy orthodoxy that has reigned supreme in Washington for decades – and is not making her friends among an elite that benefits from an annual defence budget that tops over $700bn (£560bn).
“I think you need to look at the foreign policy establishment in Washington who I am directly addressing, and speaking the truth about the kinds of policies they’ve been advocating for decades, influencing administrations from both parties,” Gabbard told The Independent in an interview.
“So, by speaking the truth about these issues, I think they see it as a direct threat to the line that’s been sold to the American people for far too long.”
If Gabbard has a chance at taking on that foreign policy establishment in any meaningful way, she has her work cut out.
The congresswoman, who was once hailed as a rising star in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party – the same one who some viewed as perhaps the face of future Democratic politics just years ago when she became one of the first members of congress to endorse Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run – has seen something of a fall from grace in the eyes of many political observers.
While she has qualified for the upcoming Democratic debates in Miami, she trails far behind the frontrunners in the race with less than a half a per cent of support in aggregates of national polls.
And, since joining the race early this year, Gabbard has faced down a barrage of negative press on a variety of fronts, especially related to LGBT+ rights and foreign policy.
Almost immediately after announcing her candidacy in January, Gabbard’s campaign was hit with stories attacking her for her past positions opposing gay marriage and in apparent support of “conversion therapy” – positions that run far afoul of mainstream Democratic politics du jour, and that yielded an expression of regret from the candidate. She also noted that she has pushed for LGBT+ protections while in congress.
But some of her biggest obstacles have come with regard to foreign policy, and challenging the “line” on war she says has been sold to the American people by their government.
For instance, she has been attacked for expressing scepticism about the American government’s claims that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons in April 2017, and has refused to label that world leader a war criminal. When it comes to Russia, she has been labelled a puppet of Vladimir Putin, with some pointing to her support from pro-Russian individuals as proof (a claim she has dismissed as baseless). And she has courted the support of Hindu nationalist groups that support India’s ruling class during her political career, sparking more media furore that has forced her to note that she doesn’t support every policy of theirs.
In spite of those criticisms, she has stayed the course and maintained her position calling for an end to American “regime-change wars”.
“I served in a war in Iraq – a war that was launched based on lies, and a war that was launched without evidence. And so the American people were duped,” Gabbard said earlier this year during a CNN town hall meeting, explaining why she hasn’t jumped to label Assad a war criminal. “So as a soldier, as an American, as a member of congress, it is my duty and my responsibility to exercise scepticism any time anyone tries to send our service members into harm’s way or use our military to go in and start a new war.”
During a recent visit to New York City, Gabbard made the case for her candidacy to a crowded hall of supporters who had lined up early, forming a queue that stretched down a Manhattan block and around the corner.
Many of those queueing said they are drawn to Gabbard for her foreign policy message, and said the other issues don’t concern them much. One supporter at the front of the line said she isn’t deterred by some of her previous controversial positions on things like gay marriage, and thinks her evolution shows she’s human.
“I want a president whose life experience has shaped their beliefs,” said the supporter, 56-year-old Eileen Tepper of the Bronx.
Once the doors opened, and before the marquee speaker commanded their attention, supporters found respite from the hot sun outside as campaign videos were projected onto white walls.
In the clips, Gabbard described the myriad other policies fuelling her campaign. She promised healthcare reforms to make sure that every American is insured. She described water as a fundamental, if not elemental human right.
And then, the videos focused on the meat of Gabbard’s pitch: the Trump administration’s positioning on Iran. She warned of outright war, and of the “new cold war”. The mere mention of national security adviser John Bolton – the George Bush-era war hawk who helped make the case for an Iraq war predicated on weapons of mass destruction that were never found – elicited raucous boos.
Gabbard later emphasised to those supporters that she hopes to stop American regime-change wars because she had already served in one, and that it is US taxpayer money that pays for those “wasteful, counterproductive wars”.
She described a dire international situation, in which she said military conflicts are bringing the world closer and closer to nuclear war. She said that the US needs a “wake-up call that drives us to action”.
Gabbard then described the events of 13 January 2018, when millions of phones buzzed in Hawaii with the following message: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The message sent the state into a panic, with residents scrambling for shelter. Students sprinted across college campuses looking for a place to hide from the incoming missile. A father lowered his daughter into a storm drain hoping that could save her.
The alert was a false alarm, but Gabbard said it illustrated how fragile American safety can be. She said it also showed that American foreign policy leaders are working without regard to what would happen if foreign provocation – say, between the US and Iran over oil tankers, leading to the military involvement of nuclear powers like Russia – led to the bomb being dropped.
“The situation we’re in exists because our leaders have failed us in the most offensive and dangerous way,” Gabbard said, noting the alert system exists, but not fallout shelters.
And, she described doom: “There is no shelter to be found that would protect us not only from the immediate blast of a nuclear bomb, but the nuclear fallout that comes after that, and the nuclear winter that occurs as a result that kills all living things.”