April 26, 2019

Tulsi Gabbard

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a 2020 presidential candidate and Democrat from Hawaii, discusses how her time serving in Iraq led her to oppose regime-change wars and defends her meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2017.

Read Full Transcript EXPAND

She’s the presidential candidate and Iraq War veteran who infamously met with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, this week on ‘Firing Line.’
A soldier, a Hindu, and a surfer.
Tulsi Gabbard made waves when she arrived in Congress.
Now the Millennial from Hawaii has her sights set on The White House.
She says her campaign is focused on war and peace.

Every one of us is paying the price for these regime-change wars.

Her critics say she can sound more like President Trump than a progressive Democrat.

I believe Trump said something similar when he was running.
Did he not?
Am I wrong about that?

He may have, but the problem is — he has not carried through.

And some want to know why she took that meeting with a brutal dictator.

You got some heat for meeting with Bashar al-Assad.
Do you not consider him a war criminal?
Why did you meet with that man?

In the pursuit of peace.

What does Tulsi Gabbard say now?

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Corporate funding is provided by… and by…
Welcome to ‘Firing Line,’ Tulsi Gabbard, and aloha.
You are an Iraq War veteran.
You are a four-term Congresswoman from the state of Hawaii.
You’re a major in the National Guard.

Yes.

And you are running for the Democratic nomination to be President of the United States, which would make you the youngest president of the United States and the first woman President of the United States.
Thank you for volunteering in the service of our national defense.

It’s my honor. Thank you.

You were serving in the Hawaii State Legislature when you decided to join the National Guard in Hawaii.
What made you decide to serve?

Like so many people in the country, 9/11 had a huge impact on me and on my life.
Seeing that terrorist attack made me want to step up —
To serve even more than you were.

Yeah.

How old were you during 9/11?

Gosh, I guess I was just about 21.

And you joined the National Guard.

I did.
I wanted to find a way that I could play my part in going after the terrorists who launched that attack against us, while also being able to continue to serve the residents of Hawaii.

And then you volunteered to go to Iraq a year later.

Yeah.

Tell us about your experience in Iraq.

Like so many people in this country, we heard what the president, what leaders in the U.S. Senate, what the Secretary of State — the things that they were saying about Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, how Saddam Hussein was working with or supporting al-Qaeda, and we heard these things that our country’s leaders were telling us and telling the UN and telling the world as their justification to go to the war in Iraq, and I believed them, like so many people.

You supported the war.

I listened to what they were telling us and I believed them and wanted to go and protect our country, protect the American people from those who could seek to do us harm.

You have expressed that serving abroad and serving in Iraq actually changed your views about a number of things…
Yeah.

…and that you had an opportunity, when serving arm in arm with LGBTQ Americans and soldiers, that even though you came from a very conservative background, your views changed while you served.
And you made a video related to this that I’d like to share with the audience just a small clip of.

While many Americans may be able to relate to growing up in a conservative home, my story’s a little different, because my father was very outspoken.
He was an activist who was fighting against gay rights and marriage equality in Hawaii.
And at that time, I forcefully defended him and his cause.
But over the years, as I grew up, I formed my own opinions, based on my life experiences, that significantly changed my views.
I regret the role that I played in causing such pain and I remain committed to fighting for LGBT equality.

You are not, by any means, the first person serving in public office to have their views evolve on LGBTQ equality.
Did you have LGBTQ soldiers that you fought with and friends?

Absolutely.
And, literally, our lives were on the line.
And I knew that they had my back, and they knew that I had theirs.

Do you think the military is an organization that helps broaden people who have more provincial experiences when they arrive?

Absolutely. Absolutely.
I mean, when I went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for my basic training, there were — I don’t know — probably close to 100, maybe 80, 90 women packed into an open bay with bunk beds, and we got real close real quick.
[ Chuckles ] And we had people from all over the country, all different backgrounds, and in that kind of high-pressure environment, in a short period of time, you get to know each other and appreciate each other and that diversity, those backgrounds in a unique way.

Do you know any trans troops?

Yes.

If you’re commander in chief, will you roll back the trans military ban on trans soldiers?

Yes.

Day one?

Every American who makes that decision to put their lives on the line to serve our country should be allowed to do so.

So, the other major change that happened in your thinking when you were serving in Iraq is that you enlisted to serve in a regime-change war.

Yeah.

But you now are running for president on a platform against regime-change wars.

That’s right.

How do you define a regime-change war?

Our country has a long history, over decades, of launching regime-change wars, toppling dictators or leaders that our country didn’t like, and, as a result, we have seen the negative impacts on the people in these countries where we’ve waged these wars, the cost on our troops, their lives, their family members’s lives, and the sacrifices that are made, as well as the cost on every single American.
With the trillions of dollars that are spent on these wars are dollars and resources that are not being dedicated to serving the urgent needs that we have here.

But how do you define regime-change wars?

Whether they’re covert or overt operations to go in and topple a dictator or a leader or government of a country that we don’t like.

In 1988, Rand Paul’s father, Ron Paul, ran for president.
He ran for president many times and he was on this program when William F. Buckley Jr. was the host.
And he had pretty strong views about the Central Intelligence Agency that I’d like to get your reaction to.
Let me show you a clip from that program.

Great.

Ron Paul is arguing there for the abolition of the CIA, that they cause more harm than they do good.
What is your view of our intelligence agencies?

The intelligence agencies provide an essential service in making sure that we have the best information possible to make decisions about our national security and our foreign policy.

Do you think they get it right most of the time?

I think that we have to do our due diligence.

Yeah.

Serving in a war where the American people were essentially lied to and duped into believing that we had to go and topple Saddam Hussein because he had weapons of mass destruction he was gonna give al-Qaeda should give all of us pause to say, ‘Give us the intelligence, give us the evidence, ask the tough questions.’

Your view is that the American people were wittingly lied to…
Yes.

…by American politicians…
Yes.

…because of faulty intelligence.

And their own objectives that they wanted to go and launch this regime-change war, and they found a way to sell this to the American people under the guise of national security and humanitarianism.
This is why, after going through that, after serving in that — or after believing that myself, I am skeptical.

When did you change your mind?
When did you realize that you had been misled?

Well, I think throughout the time that we were there.
You know, I served in a medical unit where, every single day, I saw that cost of war.
I know who pays the price.

So, then with Afghanistan and the post-9/11 era, that was a regime-change war, because we were trying to change the regime of the Taliban, who had given safe haven to al-Qaeda.

Mm-hmm.

Would you support going in to relieve the Taliban from control over Afghanistan?

Going in to go after al-Qaeda was the initial focus of our mission in Afghanistan.
That should have remained the focus.
It has not been.
We see how many lives have been lost, how many taxpayer dollars have been wasted.
And what are we?
18, 19 years after we first went into Afghanistan?
And what is there really to show for it?

Well, al-Qaeda isn’t in Afghanistan anymore, operating under safe haven under the Taliban, but the Taliban may return.

Well, these negotiations —
What is your view about the negotiations of the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Well, this is the reality, right?
I mean, these negotiations taking place between the Taliban and the United States and the Afghan government, indirectly — that’s the pragmatic reality of what’s happening on the ground there and really the only way forward.

There are regime-change wars in our history that we don’t look back as unfavorably as in our recent history.
I think World War II was certainly a regime-change war, in the sense that we didn’t believe that it was tenable to have Hitler and the Third Reich continuing to control Europe.
How does your regime-change platform square with the history of World War II?

I think that’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to the examples that we have seen in places like Iran and Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein, in Libya and toppling Muammar Gathafi, and, most recently, the regime-change war in Syria.

Is the bottom line U.S.
national security in a determination that the commander in chief makes about whether the regime change is ultimately in U.S.
national-security interest?

Yes. The initial question has to be, ‘What is in the interest of the American people?
What is in the interest of our national security?’
And, again, looking at, ‘What will the consequences be of U.S.
regime change and intervention?’

So there might be some example where a regime change a President Gabbard would support, if she determined that it was in U.S. national-security interest to intervene.

Well, yeah, I think World War II is a good example.

What do you think the United States’ role in the world should be, apart from non-intervention —
Yeah. No, it’s important that we understand the necessity of building relationships with other countries that’s based on cooperation rather than conflict.

Do you think democracy promotion should be a pillar of U.S. foreign policy?

I think that we have to respect the sovereignty of other countries and make sure that they are the ones who are determining their own future.
This has been a central problem with so many of the foreign-policy decisions that have been made in the past is the United States coming in either as the world’s police or coming in and saying, ‘Well, we know what’s best for you and your people and your country better than you do yourselves,’ because the outcome and the consequence of that has been disastrous.

Should the United States play a role in trying to influence the outcome of the elections in Venezuela?

No.

When a dictator wins a sham election and an opposition that 50 other countries and the United States, including Democratic and Republican leadership in the United States, support that opposition, are they in the wrong, in your view?

Yes.

Can you explain to me why?

Because the outcome, the ultimate resolution to the situation in Venezuela or other countries who may be facing a similar situation has to be determined by the people within that country.
The United States should take a hands-off approach, rather than picking sides and picking winners and losers.
That’s not our place to do that.

There are other nations who are trying to influence the outcome, as well.

Right.

And if they’re acting in their interests, is it — We shouldn’t still act in our own national interests.

We should not be imposing our views, as this administration has done, saying, ‘Well, the United States is gonna go and intervene and try to influence the outcome of this and enact regime change because that’s gonna benefit our American oil corporations, to make them more money.’
That is not the way it should be done.

And it’s not a democratic process, in terms of determining their leadership, right?

So, the best way that we can use our influence is to help provide support for the conditions for that process for people on both sides to find that path forward.

How do you do that?
How do you do that with people on both sides when you have people who are advocating for democracy and then you have a brutal dictator on one side?
Do we really want to support both sides in that equation?

There are people — I’m talking about the people in Venezuela.

Yeah.

And there are people who are on both sides of this, and they are obviously in conflict right now.

Do you think the majority of Venezuelans want Maduro to remain in power?

This is something for the Venezuelan people to work out.

Okay. You’re President of the United States, commander in chief right now, today.
In your view, what is the number-one geopolitical threat to American interests?

The number-one threat that we face is the fact that we are at a greater risk of nuclear catastrophe today, more than ever in history.

More than during the Cuban Missile Crisis, more than during the Cold War?

More than during the Cuban Missile Crisis, more than during the Cold War.
With increasing tensions between the United States and nuclear-armed countries, like Russia and China, with President Trump pulling out of agreements like the Iran nuclear deal.
We have — what? — roughly 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
That is the greatest threat that we face today, because it is an existential one.

One of the sort of tenets that all of our intelligence services agree on is that the rising threat of an authoritarian China poses extreme problems to our economy and our national security in the medium and long term — and even the short term.
What is your view about the ascendance of an authoritarian China?

I think that there are threats that are posed, which is exactly why we have to have a more cooperative approach to that relationship and, frankly, with the relationship with Russia and other countries.

You don’t support the trade war?

No, because things like this trade war are escalating those tensions.
And I think one thing that President Trump doesn’t seem to realize or doesn’t care about is that by escalating this trade war, that’s causing a lot of hardship and uncertainty for our own economy, for our own businesses.
But these trade wars can often escalate into a hot war, a military war.
And, again, we’re talking about two nuclear-armed countries.

You went to Syria in 2017 to learn more about the conflict in that region.
You went to Aleppo, which is a city that was notoriously difficult to get to at that time.
And you actually have some video footage from your time in Aleppo that I’d like to share with the audience.
Let’s take a look.

And their plan is to have an Islamic state in this country.

Mm-hmm.

I wonder if there was ever a part of you that, while you were in Aleppo and while you were in Syria, if you were concerned that you might have been seeing Syria and the conflict through the eyes of a pro-Assad lens.

I went in very clear-eyed about the different meetings and conversations that we were having, where some were, obviously, either people who were within the government or advocating for Assad and his government’s position, but we also had a chance just to walk around and talk with people on the street.
We met with people who were leaders of the political opposition against the Assad government and got very different views.
That’s what’s important for our leaders to have is to not just accept one narrative, but to really look at the broad view of what is happening so that we can best decide and determine what is in our interest, what is in our national-security interests, and what role we should take.

How did you get to Aleppo?

We traveled there from Damascus and were welcomed by religious leaders.
We weren’t there for very long, but we had a chance to hear from them, to hear from small-business owners, to hear from women — not about the politics of it all, but really their desire for peace and their desire to be the ones that determine their own future.

How did you find President Assad when you met with him?

He was eager to talk about his own view of what was happening in Syria and the direction that he wanted to see things go.
It was an open conversation.

What was he like?
Was he friendly? Was he —
Yeah, he was welcoming.

Yeah.

He was really, in his view, wanting to share, I think, his side of the story.
You know, I asked him some tough questions about what was happening in his country, about how many people were being killed in Syria.
I asked him about people who wanted to come home, the many, many refugees who had fled Syria, and whether or not they would be welcomed back, and how to ensure that any future elections would actually be fair and open, with international observers there to make sure that the voices of the Syrian people would be heard.
So, that’s why I took that meeting.
We’ve got to have the courage to meet with people, whether they be adversaries, potential adversaries in order to build that path forward towards peace and security, because if we’re not willing to have those tough conversations, then the only alternative is more war.

Did you ask him why he’s used chemical weapons against his people?

I did.
He denied using those weapons.

And did you counter by saying, ‘There’s abundant evidence from international groups’?
There was a back-and-forth there.
He held to his position.

He just denied it?

And we’ve seen now — You know, there have been reports that have come out from various agencies, including the UN, that chemical weapons have, unfortunately, been used against civilians throughout Syria.

If you believe that he’s used chemical weapons, do you believe that that makes him a war criminal?

As I’ve said — I’ve said this now for years, that that evidence needs to be brought forward to the International Criminal Court.

What would —
It’s not about proving to me.
I’m saying that there’s an international process here to designate someone a war criminal in order for there to be consequences and accountability.

So you would support the process of accountability for Assad.

Absolutely.

If you, as a commander in chief, knew that Assad had chemical weapons and knew where they were stored, knowing that he had used them against his own people, would you support air strikes against those chemical-weapons facilities?

I would support finding a way to eliminate the ability to use those chemical weapons again.
I think we have to be careful —
So you don’t want to say air strikes.
You would find some way —
We have to be careful about how we do that, because, again, if you just say, ‘Well, we’re gonna go in and bomb these facilities,’ you have to be careful about the collateral damage on civilians.
You have to know exactly what kinds of chemical weapons are there, how they could travel through the air and end up creating far more suffering for the people in those surrounding areas.
So you’ve got to look at what the consequences would be, again, focusing — What’s the objective here?
The objective is making it so that these chemical weapons can’t be used again against civilians.

So, then do you support the strikes that President Trump issued against chemical-weapons facilities in 2017?

I don’t. I don’t.

Because why?

Because he didn’t come to Congress to get authorization for those strikes, which is required by the Constitution of the United States, and, also, the evidence that he brought forward at that time was not sufficient, frankly.

Is it in the national-security interest if we were to pull back from Syria for Russia to fill that vacuum?

I think you have to look at the bigger picture.
For example, Syria’s had a long-standing relationship with Russia.
That’s not something that the United States is gonna change by leaving a couple hundred troops in Syria indefinitely, which is something that this administration is proposing.

So, Russian influence in Syria doesn’t concern you vis-à-vis American national interests.

What I’m saying is — we live in the world as it exists, not in a world, a fantasy world, that we wish was there.

As I was doing the research on you and your presidential effort, I noticed that there are many pro-Russian outlets who actually are favorably covering your campaign.
I have a couple of examples of them.
One is from It says, ‘Straight-talking Tulsi’s rising star means setting sun for the Democratic Party establishment.’
And there are many of them.
‘Will Tulsi Gabbard shake up the 2020 presidential run?’
They cover you more favorably than any of the other Democratic candidates, and I wonder if you have any sense of why.

No, I’m not paying attention to what those media outlets are saying.

Is it because your positions would favor Russian influence in that part of the world and that’s important to them?

What’s important is — my positions favor the American people.
My positions in ending regime-change wars, in ending the New Cold War and this nuclear-arms race are in the best interests of the American people.

Just so I understand, so then, in your foreign-policy view, it’s okay if a war criminal stays in charge of a certain country, because it lends itself towards stability, which, in your view, is in the national interest of the American people.

I think that’s a mischaracterization, absolutely.

Okay, please correct me then.

The issue here is the United States going in and waging regime-change wars in other countries is not in the interest of the people in those countries.
And this is not just my view.
History has shown us, time and time again, that the U.S. going in and toppling dictators that we don’t like has undermined our national security and has undermined our middle class and our economy by taking trillions of dollars out of our pockets to spend on these disastrous wars, dollars that we need to be using to invest in education, to rebuild our infrastructure, to make sure that sick people are getting the healthcare that they need.

Okay. One final question.
We’ve all witnessed how Donald Trump campaigns.
He will most definitely slander you as being a Socialist and probably come up with a really offensive nickname for you.
How do you plan to go up against Donald Trump?

By focusing on the American people and how, as their president and commander in chief, I will serve them.
This is not about going up against Trump or going up against this person or that person.
It is about fighting for the American people and fighting for our country and our future.
We’ve got to focus on the American people.
We’ve got to put their interests first, and that is how they win and that’s how the country wins and that’s what I will do as president commander in chief.

Tulsi Gabbard, thank you for coming to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you.
Nice to talk to you.

Nice to have you.

‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Corporate funding is provided by… and by… ♪♪
You’re watching PBS.