by Mark Perry
It’s not a requirement that our presidents serve in the military, but it used to be—or nearly so. For the five decades following World War II, serving in uniform was not only a kind of litmus test for patriotic sacrifice, it was a sure-fire way to burnish a political resume.
So it was that, for those fifty-odd years, every president could claim military service: Harry Truman (as an artillery officer in World War I), Dwight Eisenhower (as the U.S. commander in Europe during World War II), John Kennedy (the celebrated commander of PT-109), Lyndon Johnson (who was a junior officer in the naval reserve), Richard Nixon (as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy), Gerald Ford (a navigator aboard an aircraft carrier), Jimmy Carter (as a young nuclear sub officer), Ronald Reagan (who was a PR officer for the Army) and George H.W. Bush (whose fighter was shot down by the Japanese).
In 1992, Bill Clinton broke the mold—and paid the price. Upbraided in public by then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell for his proposal that gays be allowed to serve in the military, the Arkansas Democrat was skewered by military officers who pointed out that he’d not only not served in uniform, he’d been (as Air Force General Harold Campbell described him) “a womanizing, pot-smoking, gay-loving draft dodger.” Clinton survived the criticism, but he worried about Powell’s influence (“Clinton was apoplectic on the subject of Colin Powell, terrified of Colin Powell,” Clinton partisan Robert Reich commented at the time), and spent much of the rest of his years in office checking the military’s pulse.
Clinton deferred to the military, but his presidency set the tone for his successors—only one of whom (George W. Bush), served in uniform. But while it’s true that military service is no longer viewed as a requirement for political office, the military itself tilts firmly in the direction of those candidates who, if they haven’t “seen the elephant” (a phrase denoting time in combat), at least have heard “the sound of angry mice”—as one retired Army colonel described it. Which helps to explain why the candidacy of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a major in the Army National Guard, is receiving a surprising amount of support from the military’s large cohort of enlisted personnel, a smaller but influential group of senior retired military officers, as well as an increasingly powerful group of veterans who served in America’s post-9/11 wars.
“Well, this is purely anecdotal, but there’s real interest among those in uniform who I talk with about what [Rep.] Seth Moulton, [South Bend, IN Mayor Pete] Buttigieg, and Gabbard are saying,” retired Col. Kevin Benson, a former director of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies notes. “They’re all veterans, so I suppose that makes sense. But of the three, you hear a lot of good things about Gabbard. The chatter from those in uniform is that while she could do better in saying what she says, she makes sense. There’s a lot of questions about these endless deployments. Give her credit. People in the military take her seriously.”
Gabbard’s perceived mini-boomlet among those in uniform is due primarily to her willingness to promote her service. As a major in the Army National Guard, Gabbard served two years in a forward deployed medical unit in Iraq (in 2004 and 2005), and served in Kuwait in 2008 and 2009. She has even given political speeches in uniform, a not-so-subtle reminder to would-be political opponents that her love of country is not on the table—that “she’s been there,” while they haven’t. Her cornerstone campaign message is built around her service: the U.S., she says, should get its military out of foreign wars. Last week, during the Democratic debate in Detroit, Gabbard pledged that, if elected president, she’d remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan within a year of taking office. Her message hit a nerve, particularly in the military. “After the last debate, everyone was piling on Gabbard,” a senior, conservative, and Trump supporting retired senior military officer told me recently, “but I think it’s worth noting that none of this was coming from the retired community, or veterans—or from inside the Pentagon. And for good reason. From everything I’ve heard she was a good officer. That matters. People in the military are starting to pay attention.” So too, as it turns out, is Washington’s foreign policy establishment.
In February, NBC News reported that Gabbard was the preferred choice of the “Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election,” while, more recently, MSNBC’s Joy Reid endorsed New York Times writer Wajahat Ali’s notion that “Russian bots” were promoting Gabbard at the expense of California Senator Kamala Harris. “Beware the Russian bots and their promotion of Tulsi Gabbard and sowing racial discord especially around Kamala Harris,” Ali claimed. In other words, the message seems to be, she’s the Putin-preferred Democrat. The NBC-MSNBC anti-Gabbard counteroffensive might be entirely predictable (the two networks have been leading the Russiagate besotted political choir for two years), but the same cannot be said for the normally careful Josh Rogin, the Washington Post’s anointed commenter on all things political.
Rogin pilloried Gabbard in a column that revived the most telling case against her—that she is a fellow traveler of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, whom she visited in January of 2017. Gabbard’s visit with Assad, Rogin claimed, tipped her over into the wacky world of pro-Assad propagandists, flush with all of the bizarre claims for which they’re known: that the Syrian “White Helmets” humanitarian group is a front for terrorists, that Assad’s barrel bomb attacks on civilians are “false flags” (a phrase that now triggers almost everyone’s gag mechanism), that reports that Assad gassed his own people are whole cloth, and that she’s a cat’s paw for Russia’s Putin—who, dontcha know, put Trump in office. Gabbard’s “narrative on Syria,” Rogin wrote, “is deeply incorrect, immoral and un-American. If it were adopted by her party and country, it would lead the United States down a perilous moral and strategic path.”
Of course, as Rogin must certainly know, the “perilous moral and strategic path” that the U.S. dare not tread is one on which it has already embarked—a notion he inadvertently highlights in the midst of his anti-Gabbard pummeling: “Listening to Gabbard,” he writes, “one might think the United States initiated the Syrian conflict by arming terrorists for a regime-change war that has resulted in untold suffering.” The tip-off phrase here is “one might think”—a sign that what follows is patently false. Gabbard, in fact, has never argued that the U.S. “initiated” the Syrian conflict, though Rogin is right when he says that Gabbard believes that, in trying to rid Syria of Assad, the U.S. has armed terrorists. This is not only not lunacy—it happens to be true. The U.S. not only armed groups with terrorist ties, the arms it supplied ended up in the hands of ISIS, which we then had to fight. This is friendly fire writ large: we supply weapons to terrorists to fight dictators which end up in the hands of terrorists whom we then have to fight.
Rogin also conveniently ignores what any good Google search would yield: that the Obama administration dithered in backing Syria’s rebels in the hopes that its earlier negotiations with Assad on a comprehensive Middle East peace would yield results. Tulsi Gabbard, it turns out, isn’t the only U.S. official to sidle up to Bashar al-Assad—so too did George Mitchell. One might think that Rogin is unfamiliar with recent U.S. history.
While Gabbard’s most vocal critics point to her meeting with Assad as a disqualifier (evidence, they say, that she’s his “toady”), the Hawaii Democrat has been accused of Islamophobia, of harboring anti-gay sentiments, of being attracted to cultish gurus—and of being a closet Republican. It’s also reliably reported that she’s tied to Sheldon Adelson (and hence to Israel), which is decidedly unpalatable for Democratic progressives who might want to call her their own—though it brings her well in line with those in the party, like Clintonista Cory Booker, who feed at Israel’s trough. Thus, Tulsi Gabbard—she’s odd, an outlier, one of a kind: she’s an anti-interventionist surf-boarding Hindu in a military uniform.
But there might be something more at work here. For Democratic Party mainliners, the anti-Gabbard charge sheet is topped by Gabbard’s February 2016 surprise endorsement of Bernie Sanders—a sin far worse, it seems, than chatting with Bashar al-Assad. “There’s a special place in hell reserved for women who don’t support other women,” Madeleine Albright (a Hillary Clinton supporter and charter member of the Democratic Party’s interventionist wing) intoned, and Gabbard would know—soon after her Sanders endorsement, Clinton supporters had it around that anyone who supported Gabbard did so because they preferred “non-threatening women.” She was weak, soft. Gabbard wasn’t intimidated. The reason she endorsed Sanders, Gabbard pointedly implied at the time, is because of her experience in uniform, and Clinton’s lack of it. That she’d been on the receiving end of U.S. interventions, and she hadn’t liked what she’d seen. That Clinton and Albright and their ilk were trigger-pulling imperialists, bent on killing America’s young people.
None of this, of course, implies that the increased interest in Gabbard among the military will actually matter. The tyranny of numbers shows otherwise. The military vote hasn’t determined a national election since 1864. Then too, most of the military’s personnel are southern, conservative—and Republican. They have been written off by the Democratic Party before, and can be again. Losing the military vote is a given. But Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Joe Biden, and all those others on the stage last week (excepting Bernie Sanders) would be wise to listen to what Major Gabbard is actually saying: that our anti-terrorism strategy doesn’t make sense, that the groundswell of anti-interventionism is building, that the voices calling for a less militaristic foreign policy are growing stronger—and that large segments of the U.S. military are as sickened by America’s endless wars as the rest of us.