Among the headliners scheduled for an Oct. 15 barbecue fundraiser organized by central Iowa Democrats is Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii congresswoman liked by many progressives for her early support of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign but who has also drawn widespread criticism for her skepticism about reports of Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad’s brutality and suspicions about her commitment to progressive values.
In January, Gabbard traveled to Syria for a “fact-finding” mission about the country’s ongoing civil war, escorted by two members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, an anti-Semitic and fascist political party that has actively supported Assad’s civil war and been accused of using women suicide bombers and physically intimidating Western journalists. While there, she met with Assad to discuss a resolution to the war, angering congressional leaders who were not aware of the trip. Before and since, Gabbard also made comments about the conflict sympathetic to the Assad regime, which is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. She’s expressed support for Russia’s intervention in the war on behalf of Assad, claiming it was instead an effort to combat al-Qaeda and ISIS; and in April expressed skepticism that Assad’s forces killed dozens of civilians in Syria’s Idlib Province in a chemical weapon attack despite plenty of evidence they were the perpetrators.
President Trump’s response to the attack — an ineffective missile strike — was criticized by Gabbard, who said she was angered Trump took “the advice of war hawks and escalated our illegal regime change war to overthrow the Syrian government” that would lead to “the strengthening of al-Qaeda and other terrorists” and even “a possible nuclear war between the United States and Russia.” Gabbard had previously appeared more favorable toward Trump; after the election, she was one of the only Democrats to visit the president-elect at Trump Tower in New York, where she discussed “our country’s illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government.”
Gabbard’s “illegal war” references stem from her criticism of the Obama administration, whose interventions in Syria she similarly warned could lead to nuclear war with Russia. Beginning in 2014, Gabbard regularly appeared on Fox News to slam Obama for avoiding the phrase “Islamic extremism,” a critique influenced by her anti-Islam leanings and one often employed by Trump on the campaign trail (Gabbard also supported immigration restrictions for Syrian refugees prioritizing Christians over Muslims, similar to those eventually adopted in Trump’s controversial travel ban). Her criticisms earned her praise from conservatives, which included several positive articles at Breitbart, the alt-right propaganda outlet headed by ousted Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon (the man who arranged Gabbard’s Trump Tower meeting last November). She’s also been close with anti-Palestinian Trump megadonor Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate who last year bestowed upon her the Champion of Freedom award after she supported legislation favorable to his business interests.
In addition to her controversial views on Islam and Assad and her Trumpworld associations, Gabbard has a shaky history on progressive social issues. When her father, an anti-gay activist and former Republican politician who founded a nonprofit called Stop Promoting Homosexuality, ran for the congressional seat she now holds in 2004, she helped run his campaign and denounced his opponent’s “homosexual extremist supporters.” As a state lawmaker, she opposed abortion rights and supported a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage. She also opposed anti-bullying legislation aimed at helping LGBT students, saying it would lead them to question their sexuality and that statistics “show that our schools are not rampant with anti-gay harassment.” Although she has since adopted more pro-gay views, her state’s LGBT caucus doesn’t trust her, in part because of broken campaign promises, and in 2016 endorsed her primary rival in her congressional re-election bid.
The central Iowa Democrats’ other headliner for the October fundraiser, which will be at the Prairie Moon Winery in Ames and cost a minimum of $30 (or $35 at the door) to attend, will be third-term Maryland Congressman John Delaney, who in July launched a longshot bid for the presidency in 2020 focused on critiquing partisan politics.
Also invited are all of the Democratic candidates for governor, as well as the four Democrats currently running for a chance to challenge Congressman Steve King in 2018. The event is a fundraiser for the Boone, Greene, Grundy, Hamilton, Hardin and Story county Democrats and the Iowa State University Democrats.