The GOP’s Favorite Democrat Goes to Syria

Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii congresswoman, has a worldview that aligns closely with President-elect Trump’s.

Scott Audette / Reuters

Representative Tulsi Gabbard is traveling to Syria and Lebanon for what her office called a fact-finding trip—her latest controversial move that will likely frustrate her fellow Democrats.

A statement from her office declined to comment on who Gabbard will specifically meet in Syria, citing security concerns, but noted she would meet with “a number of individuals and groups including religious leaders, humanitarian workers, refugees and government and community leaders.” It’s unclear if those government officials include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who will likely welcome the prospect of meeting an elected American lawmaker as he tightens his grip on power. News of her trip was first reported by Foreign Policy.

The Obama administration and its Western allies have called for Assad’s ouster, and have backed some rebels groups opposed to him in the more than five-year civil war that has spawned a humanitarian disaster. President-elect Trump says the U.S. should focus on the real enemy: ISIS, which is one of many groups fighting Assad. Gabbard holds that view, as well. She recently introduced the Stop Arming Terrorists Act, which would make it unlawful for the U.S. government to support groups allied with and supporting terrorist organizations, some of which are fighting Assad. Still, her visit to Syria, in theory, may constitute a violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized individuals from contacting a foreign government that’s engaged in a dispute with the U.S. It’s worth pointing out, however, that no one has ever been prosecuted for alleged violations of the act.

Gabbard is an Iraq War veteran and two-term Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii. She supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, was born in American Samoa, and is the first Hindu to be elected to the Congress. She was mentioned as Trump’s likely choice for U.S. ambassador to the UN—the job ultimately went to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley—and even met with him after the November election.

In a statement after their meeting, she said said the two discussed foreign policy, and criticized what she called “interventionist, regime change warfare.”

Gabbard’s worldview aligns closely with Trump’s stated foreign-policy positions: For instance, she says she believes Assad should remain in power while the U.S. targets ISIS (as does Trump). She has praised Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian strongman, who has cracked down on Islamist groups in his own country after a military-backed coup ousted the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood-inspired president (Trump called him “a fantastic guy.”) She has also lauded Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister whose political party draws inspiration from Hindu nationalism and some of whose members have been linked to anti-Muslim violence (Trump called Modi a “great man.”) And, much like Trump and his supporters, she has criticized President Obama over his reluctance to call ISIS an “Islamic” group, saying the president “is completely missing the point of this radical Islamic ideology that’s fueling these people.”

It is for such positions that The Washington Post dubbed Gabbard “The Democrat that Republicans love and the DNC can’t control.” Gabbard is reportedly a favorite of Steve Bannon, the former CEO of Breitbart News who now is the president-elect’s chief strategist. Bannon, who has described Breitbart as a “platform” for alt-right views, which combine white nationalism and economic populism, has praised Gabbard’s views on guns—she supports some gun restrictions, but not others; her alignment with Republican senators on Syrian refugees coming to the U.S.; and, of course, Islamist terrorism. Indeed, Gabbard’s name was not among the 169 Democratic lawmakers who wrote to Trump criticizing his hiring of Bannon.

Gabbard’s family background is no less interesting. Her father, Mike Gabbard, is a Hawaii state senator, who is perhaps best known for his vocal opposition to same-sex marriage, a position his daughter shared until, she said, she went to Iraq and experienced “what happens when a government basically attempts to act as a moral arbiter.” The elder Gabbard, a Republican turned Democrat, is a practicing Roman Catholic, but has been tied to an extreme form of Hinduism that has been called a cult. Her mother, Carol, is a practicing Hindu, and Gabbard converted to the religion while in her teens. The congresswoman has been a vocal advocate against the persecution of Hindus, especially in Muslim-majority countries, but denies she supports Hindu nationalists groups in India. Gabbard also denies her religion has shaped her opinion of Islam, telling Quartz that her views were shaped by “serving in the Middle East.”

Before she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Gabbard served in the Hawaii House of Representatives from 2002 to 2004. She was 21 at the time of her election. She joined the National Guard during her term, deployed to Iraq in 2004 as part of a field medical unit, attended Officer Candidate School, and returned to Iraq in 2009. Between the two deployments, she worked as a legislative aide to Daniel Akaka, the longtime U.S. senator from Hawaii. In 2010, she was elected to the Honolulu City Council. Two years later, she was elected to Congress, where she served on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, and was spoken of as a future governor of Hawaii or U.S. senator. With her visit to Syria, Gabbard is likely to remain in the foreign-policy conversation for some time.