Tulsi Gabbard is one of the more compelling subplots of the 2020 election

The Hawaii congresswoman is running a maverick campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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Tulsi Gabbard is frustrated. Last week the Hawaiian congresswoman and presidential candidate threatened to boycott the upcoming Democratic presidential primary debate in protest at the DNC’s arbitrary rules for qualifying and lack of transparency in its approved polls. 

Then on Saturday she took to Twitter to hit out at a New York Times profile, titled “What, Exactly, Is Tulsi Gabbard Up To?”, which she described as a “‘greatest hits’ smear piece” and made clear she does not expect fair treatment at the Tuesday’s debate in Westerville, Ohio, for which the NYT is one of the moderators. 

Gabbard was back in Iowa last week, the key first-in-the-nation state that holds its caucus on 3 February, meeting voters and supporters at events billed as “coffee and toffee with Tulsi”. When Gabbard first entered Congress in Hawaii aged just 21, she asked her mother, Carol, to make batches of macadamia nut toffee that she then gave to members on both sides of the House as a gesture of “aloha”, which Gabbard describes as respect and underpins her belief that dialogue is key to making progress in politics.

It is this belief, however, that saw her agree to a meeting with the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Asad in January 2017 provoking a firestorm of criticism which she has struggled ever since to douse. After a campaign stop in Washington, Iowa, last Tuesday, she defended that meeting as being “in the interests of peace and national security” so I asked her what it had achieved other than gifting the regime a PR coup.

“It’s not a gift,” she said, “… there was no PR around any meeting. The only coverage that came was a smear campaign from the media saying ‘how dare you meet with a brutal dictator?’ Tell me when peace has ever been achieved by only meeting with friends and allies?” she asked.

That explanation sounds naïve and does not hold sway for her many critics who believe it had more to do with building her personal brand, and suspect she is doing the same with the presidential campaign, or that she will ultimately become the Jill Stein of 2020 and launch a third party run, something she has already refuted on the record.

Gabbard’s political views are best understood as a clash between her upbringing in Hawaii and her experiences in the National Guard where she has served for 16 years. She is both a yoga-practising surfer who founded an environmental non-profit as a teenager cleaning beaches in Hawaii on the weekend with her friends; and a hardened, two-term Iraq war veteran who witnessed the cost of war first hand, forever changing her outlook on the world and making her a vociferous opponent of what she describes as wasteful regime change wars, a policy that is at the heart of her candidacy.

These duelling sides of her personality were on display on the trail last week, first at the home of supporter Harold Frakes in Brighton, where she described how growing up in Hawaii gave her an appreciation of the environment and explained that putting service above self is what motivated her to run for the presidency. 

Later at Café Dodici in Washington she struck a markedly more alarmist tone, asking people to raise their hands if they would know where to go in the face of an imminent nuclear attack.

Her preoccupation with nuclear war is not an act. In January 2018 Hawaiians woke up to text messages telling them to seek immediate shelter from an incoming missile. That experience further strengthened her belief that deescalating conflicts through dialogue and negotiation is the only way to guarantee national security. 

But it has also created confusion. Gabbard is regularly painted as non-interventionist but she has long since been on the record that pulling out of Syria too early, for example, would endanger the Kurds, and invited the Syrian Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed to the State of the Union in February.

This does not alter her belief, however, that it’s time for the United States to dial down its interests in conflicts overseas. “The United States should not be in a position to be the world’s police because it doesn’t work, nor is it our place,” she said in response to a question in Washington, explaining that America’s foreign policy is beholden to corporate interests and needs strong leadership to resist the military industrial complex.

It’s a line that ought to play well with Democratic voters as the party shifts to the left, but instead she has been labelled an isolationist, much like Trump, a term she wearily rejects.

“It’s a sad state of affairs that people assume when I’m advocating to end these regime change wars they equate that with isolationism,” she says. “It’s ridiculous because that means what you really believe is that the only way we can engage with other countries is through bombing them or through crippling sanctions.”

It has left Gabbard in a bind. She has cast herself as an anti-war candidate but is opposed to the United States reneging on its existing commitments around the world, much like the rest of democratic presidential rivals. She is committed to “a foreign policy that’s based on cooperation rather than conflict” but has not articulated what she expects from foes like China or Russia in return. 

Her rivals will probably not welcome her decision, on Monday morning, to participate in the debate after all, but her run for the nomination remains one of the more compelling subplots in the 2020 race.

Chris Robinson is a freelance reporter in Iowa covering 2020 US election whose work has previously appeared in the Guardian. He tweets @cslrobinson​.