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The Cost of War: An Interview With Hawaii Congressional Candidate and Veteran Tulsi Gabbard

Hawaii Congressional candidate Tulsi Gabbard. (Photo: Tulsi For Hawai'i)

Tulsi Gabbard. If the name is unfamiliar to you, it won’t be for long. Gabbard, a 31-year-old former Honolulu city councilwoman and state legislator, has been repeatedly tagged as a “rising star” and “one to watch” following her primary upset victory and subsequent appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

Tulsi, as everyone calls her, is not just another Congressional candidate. At 21 years old, she was the youngest woman ever to be elected to a state legislature. She’s also a captain in Hawaii’s National Guard and a combat veteran who served in Iraq (2004-2006) and Kuwait (2008-2009). The daughter of a prominent Hawaii state senator, Gabbard was born in American Samoa and happens to be a (non-Indian) Hindu, which would make her (if she wins) the first Samoan-born Hindu female combat veteran from Hawaii to be elected to Congress.

On camera, Gabbard is cool, commanding and articulate. In person, she appears compassionate, approachable and down-to-earth. As they say: “one to watch.”

In the final days of the 2012 campaign, Gabbard is powering toward what will almost certainly be a crushing win over her (barely acknowledged) opponent, a cigar-waving Republican who refers to himself as “the 9/11 Guy.”

If she wins Hawaii’s District 2 (representing all of Hawaii excluding Honolulu), Gabbard promises to champion economic and environmental issues for the Aloha State and pursue progressive social positions (pro-choice, pro-marriage-equality).

But by far Gabbard’s most visible role is that of soldier. As a combat veteran, she’s played her overseas military experience to the hilt and is an example of how, in modern American politics, Democrats and Republicans try to outdo one another as being “pro-military.”

And while Hawaii is small, both in terms of area and population, it is also the fulcrum on which the Asia-Pacific pivot turns – Hawaii is the headquarters of US Pacific Command which overseas military operations in half the globe. As a congresswoman, Gabbard would be headed to Washington to join fellow Hawaii heavyweights Sen. Daniel Inouye (also president pro tempore) and (if re-elected) President Obama.

Recently, Gabbard spoke by telephone to Truthout contributor Jon Letman. Here she shares her views on Afghanistan, Iran, drones, military spending and the lessons learned in Iraq that would influence the vote of a Congresswoman Gabbard.

Jon Letman for Truthout: Last year, on the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, you called for the immediate and orderly withdrawal of all US troops. President Obama says they will remain until the end of 2014, more than two years away. If elected, what will you do to help realize an earlier withdrawal?

Tulsi Gabbard: A couple things. First, coming from the background that I have, as well as potentially being the first or among the first female combat veterans ever elected to Congress, I think I’ll have a very unique platform to speak from, both to the general public as well as with other members of Congress, helping people understand what the true cost of war is, as well as what impacts our continued presence in Afghanistan are having on our troops, our military families, our communities here at home, our economy and, generally, our foreign policy.

The only way for Afghanistan to move forward as a country, to achieve the stability that everyone wants for them, including the Afghan people, is they need to stand up and take the tools that they have, the tools that we’ve helped provide for them, and make that determination for themselves and fight for it. Our continued presence there – whether it’s for another two years or another 20 years – is not going to make a difference until the Afghan people stand up and take ownership for their own future.

JL: Can you make a difference in getting troops out of Afghanistan sooner than 2014?

TG: Absolutely. You know, I think it’s our responsibility to continue to impress upon our president and members of Congress and upon the people about what’s at stake here and how urgent it really is.

That is something that I am continuing to try to do, and it’s something that I see really the power lying within the public, the people, the citizens. Standing up and saying, Hey, you know, this is not the direction that we want for our country. These are not the sacrifices that we really need to be making, and we really need to be taking the billions of dollars that we’re spending attempting to be the world’s police – nation-building in other countries – and focus on investing in our economy here at home, investing in our infrastructure, investing in rebuilding our own nation at a time when it’s so necessary. It’s not our role to be the world’s police.

JL: Let’s talk about Iran. The UN Security Council imposed four binding resolutions starting in 2006, and since then, economic sanctions have increased in number and severity. We’re under pressure to draw “red lines”; meanwhile, Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Iranian regime insist they do not intend to build nuclear weapons; the Supreme Leader Khamenei has issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons; Israel’s intelligence community said they’re not doing it, and in January of this year, Secretary of Defense Panetta said Iran is not trying to develop nuclear weapons. Yet talk of war and the sanctions continue. What path do you think the United States should pursue with Iran, and should we even have the option of military force on the table?

TG: Again, this is where I see great value in having members of Congress who truly understand firsthand what the cost of war is, so that decisions like this – conversations and debates like this – about what role military force has to play in foreign relations in these international questions – you know. This experience weighs heavily on these decisions. If you look at our own senators – Senator Akaka and Senator Inouye – both veterans who fought in World War II, both who voted against the war in Iraq, you’ll see that people who understand what the cost of war is are much more careful about making the decisions on when and where our troops should have boots on the ground.

I think that doing our best to stick to the facts about what is happening in Iran, and really looking at the intelligence that is there versus the rhetoric, and focusing on diplomacy, is where the heavy lifting or real work lies. I’m not naive to the political challenges that are there and the influence that Israel has, and our good friendship with Israel as a country, but again, taking military action is not something that we should take lightly for many reasons. And we really need to focus on the facts, on diplomacy and relationship-building.

JL: Do you think the United States would be a more credible advocate for nuclear disarmament and anti-proliferation if we openly admitted that Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, or if we were to actually get rid of our own nuclear weapons?

TG: I think we, um … [pauses] … that’s a good question. You know, working toward nonproliferation is definitely an objective that we need to continue to pursue. Uh … that’s a good question. I don’t know. I’d have to give that one some thought.

JL: Let’s move on to drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. A report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism said that in the first three years of President Obama’s term, between 282 and 535 civilians were killed by drones, including more than 60 children. Twenty-nine civilians were reportedly killed in Yemen by US drones during the Democratic National Convention, and October 14 was the one-year anniversary of the killing of 16-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki in Yemen by a CIA drone – which you don’t hear a lot about, but it’s there in the papers. Where do you stand on this kind of foreign policy?

TG: I think there’s no question that the use of drones in civilian causalities is absolutely wrong, as well as the use of drones against American citizens who have the right to due process within our own system. We must have safeguards in place as well as accountability when these actions are taken.

I think it’s also important to look at how the use of drones in certain scenarios has saved lives and how, when strategically placed and properly used, [drones] are an asset to national security. I think there is a place for the use of this technology, as well as smaller, quick-strike special force teams versus tens, if not hundreds of thousands of soldiers occupying space within a country.

I think that there’s a place for looking at unconventional threats to our national security and using similarly unconventional tactics to respond to those threats. So, it’s like many things; I think that it’s a balance, but there’s no question that the actions and the consequences of drones and how they have killed civilians are absolutely wrong and not only safeguards need to be put in place, but again, accountability is so important, just as there are when any civilian is killed by any military, wrongly killed by any military action.

JL: Are you saying there’s a role for drones to be used in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia?

TG: Well, I don’t think it’s – you know, if you’re picking those three countries – I am sure that there are other scenarios as well; I think you’ve got to look at a bigger picture than that.

JL: What about the use of military or police drones inside the United States? What kind of oversight should Congress have?

TG: There should absolutely be oversight. Of course, I have great concerns of people overstepping boundaries – especially here within our own country, invading people’s privacy, and if it’s improperly being used for surveillance and again, violating freedoms here we have in our own country. Obviously, the use of those in our own country, I would have to look very carefully, at and I’m not aware of scenarios at this point where that’s occurring.

JL: I believe the North Dakota police used drones and also in Tampa during the Republican National Convention.

What lessons do you take away from having served in Iraq and Kuwait, and how would those experiences influence your voting as a Congresswoman?

TG: Those experiences changed my life completely, as an individual as well as my perspective on the world, on our country, our role in the world, as well as our government’s role in our own personal lives, as well as the tremendous cost of war. Seeing that firsthand – I was in a medical unit during my first deployment, and one of my daily jobs was going down a list of all the casualties and injuries that happened in the entire country every single day. I had to go through this list name by name and see if any of our Hawaii soldiers had been injured or hurt and make sure that they were getting the care that they needed, and making sure that they were cared for until they made it home.

But seeing – in many different ways – that cost of war will absolutely make an impact on how I’ll vote as a member of Congress. When we’re talking about our military’s role – when and where they should serve, and being very, very, very careful and measured in those decisions.

JL: Democrat Congresswoman Mazie Hirono (a Senate candidate who holds the office Gabbard is running for) voted along with Republicans in 2011 and 2012 supporting $725 billion and then $643 billion for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Do you foresee yourself as a Congresswoman following that same line, voting for more than the president is asking?

TG: I don’t like to make arbitrary statements without having been there and gone through the process, but I can tell you that when we are talking about defense spending, there is so much room for improvement, and to talk about these in broad strokes, throwing out arbitrary numbers, I think doesn’t serve any purpose. I think we need to really look at being smarter, much smarter, about the direction our military is taking. Looking at some requests that were made for, what was it – airplanes, or something like that, that the Pentagon itself said, “These are outdated. We don’t want them. We don’t need them.” And yet, Congress still passed and funded these programs. That doesn’t make any sense.

I’ve also witnessed abuse by defense contractors, especially overseas. Really, waste and fraud within defense contracting, that’s an area that we need to improve, without question, and hold people accountable.

There is so much that we can do better, and we must do better at. There are certain needs that are required for national security and there are things that are not, and we need to take a very, very hard look at that and understand we are facing tough times. We need to maintain our national security, but we also need to improve our economy, we need to improve education, we need to improve the infrastructure that we have in our communities. All of these things are interconnected.

JL: Do you think that our military spending, so much more than any other country’s, is taking away from our ability to deal with climate change, food security and education?

TG: Well, it’s a limited pot of resources and every single dollar should have the highest value. And we need to balance the needs of our entire communities. So yes, national security is incredibly important, just as serving on the city council – safety always comes first. Education, having an educated workforce and that being the best investment as a stronger economy. We can’t do anything as a country, and our national security is under great duress, if we don’t have a strong economy. And so, you know, looking at these in a compartmentalized fashion is exactly the problem. We need to understand that if we’ve got a weak economy, our national security is weak. If we’ve got a weak economy, we’re not investing in education; we’re not looking at the big picture of what we need to do in order to make sure that all the different elements are being served in a way that is necessary for us to go forward.

JL: Okay, last question. When you think of the Hindu concept of ahimsa (nonviolence), and then you think about the military and the impacts on veterans, and of course, the people whose country we’re fighting wars in, how can one reconcile?

TG: The principles of nonviolence and of tolerance coincide with much of what we appreciate, of what you’re talking about – the Hindu principle of ahimsa – with our own culture here in Hawaii, of aloha and respect and compassion. Part of that also is recognizing where you need to stand up and you need to fight what is right. So, I think that those principles of tolerance should not be mistaken for weakness or passiveness, but looking at doing what is pono (righteous) and standing up for what is right, is where that balance comes in, and it’s not an easy one. But they are not ideas or values that conflict.

JL: They don’t conflict? So the idea of nonviolence, is it consistent with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

TG: Well, that’s not a black and white question. I was against the war in Iraq. We never should have gone there in the first place. I’m the first to say we need to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Is the question, Have we helped people? Yes, we’ve helped people in a lot of different ways. Have there been things done in both of those countries that are inconsistent with that? Absolutely. We should never have gone there in the first place. I can’t answer your question with a simple yes or no because there are so many different layers there. Holding people accountable for wrongdoing? Yes, that is consistent. And again, it’s a tough balance that exists, but it’s one that we need to strive for.