The debate question was about equal pay. But Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard used the moment to tout her anti-war foreign policy message and her military credentials.
“For too long our leaders have failed us, from taking us from one regime change war to the next, leading us into a new Cold War and arms race, costing us trillions of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars and countless lives. This insanity must end,” Gabbard said Wednesday night, answering the first question posed to her during the first Democratic 2020 presidential debate.
Standing on stage with nine other candidates, Gabbard spoke for a little over seven minutes, by CNN’s count, with the majority of her time focused on foreign policy.
Despite that short amount of time, the debate was an opportunity for Gabbard to use her military service, two deployments and her seat on the House Foreign Affairs committee to distinguish herself from the wide field of candidates who largely lack foreign policy chops.
One exchange that stood out was Gabbard’s back-and-forth with fellow House member, Tim Ryan of Ohio, over how to end US involvement in Afghanistan.
“You have to stay engaged in these situations. Nobody likes it. It’s long. It’s tedious,” Ryan said. “So I would say we must be engaged in this. We must have our State Department engaged, we must have our military engaged to the extent that they need to be.”
Gabbard, a Iraq War veteran, took issue with Ryan’s answer.
“As a soldier, I will tell you, that answer is unacceptable,” she interjected.
She argued that the US should bring back its troops because “we are no better off in Afghanistan today than we were when this war began.”
Ryan tried to clarify that he doesn’t want US engagement in Afghanistan, but said the reality is “if the United States isn’t engaged, the Taliban will grow. And they will have bigger, bolder terrorist acts. We have got to have some presence there.”
“The Taliban was there long before we came in,” Gabbard rebutted. “They’re going to be there long before we leave. We cannot keep US troops deployed to Afghanistan thinking that we’re going to somehow squash this Taliban that’s been there, that every other country that’s tried has failed.”
“I didn’t say squash them. When we weren’t in there, they started flying planes into our buildings,” Ryan said.
Gabbard quickly responded, getting the last word in: “The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11. Al Qaeda did.”
She also used her stance on American intervention to draw a contrast between her and President Donald Trump.
When addressing rising tensions between the Washington and Tehran, Gabbard said it’s important that “every single American stand up and say no war with Iran.”
“This President and his chickenhawk Cabinet have led us to the brink of war with Iran,” she said, adding that Trump needs to “swallow his pride” and recommit to the nuclear deal with Iran.
Gabbard has held these anti-interventionist foreign policy positions, which are central to her campaign, over her four terms in Congress.
But Gabbard’s approach to achieving peace has earned her criticism.
In 2017, she was widely criticized for taking a meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, who is widely viewed as responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians.
Gabbard told CNN’s Jake Tapper she did so “because I felt it’s important that if we profess to truly care about the Syrian people, about their suffering, then we’ve got to be able to meet with anyone that we need to if there is a possibility that we could achieve peace, and that’s exactly what we talked about.”
Ryan on CNN Thursday hit back at Gabbard for criticizing his answer and raised her meeting with Assad to argue that Gabbard lacks understanding of the issues.
“She was trying to score points. I think whoever got that question on Afghanistan, she was going to try to go after, and quite frankly she doesn’t have very good judgment on a lot of these issues,” Ryan told CNN’s Kate Bolduan. “She was actually meeting with Assad not long after he was gassing children in Syria. So I don’t think her judgment is up to speed on some of these issues.”