WASHINGTON, D.C. — During a recent talk-story session at an intermediate school in Hawaii, Tulsi Gabbard was reminded of how terrorism is not an abstract concept even in an isolated state like ours.

After the talk, two seventh-graders approached the congresswoman.

“Their question coming up to me was, ‘Tulsi, we are very worried about the threat from ISIS and are wondering when this threat will hit us here at home,’” she said.

The Democrat who has represented Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District since January 2013 said the students were active in student government. She was impressed that they were so aware — and so worried — about the Islamic State group.

For Gabbard, the concerns about the militant group underscored why she has made national defense and foreign policy top priorities as she seeks a third term in office. They were issues that she spoke about with Civil Beat on Friday. The interview had been scheduled for her D.C. office, but was changed to a telephone interview because she was sick.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard waves from floor of joint house/senate session before India Prime Minister gives speech to lawmakers. 8 june 2016.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard waves from the floor during a joint House-Senate session at the U.S. Capitol welcoming Indian Prime Narendra Modi on Wednesday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In addition to the Islamic State group, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, Gabbard is worried about North Korea.

“Specifically, on the national defense and foreign policy front, in my position on the Armed Services Committee and really since I’ve been in Congress, I have focused on the ever-quickly-growing threat of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, both in their intercontinental ballistics missile capabilities as well as their nuclear weapons,” she said.

“And now (the) recently discovered ability to miniaturize those nuclear weapons into warheads,” she said. “I do not want to see our beloved home, state and people be under the constant threat of North Korea’s threat of nuclear annihilation.”

Gabbard proposed amendments to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, currently being debated in the Senate, that she said would increase missile defense capabilities for the islands. It’s something that her colleague and fellow military veteran, Rep. Mark Takai, has supported as well.

“The threat from North Korea is not some theoretical threat,” Gabbard said. “It’s a threat that exists and that places Hawaii directly within range of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles today. This is not something that may happen in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. This exists today.

“We’ve got the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, within my district, that plays an integral role in both Hawaii and the United States defense systems against this threat from North Korea.”

Regime-Change Wars

Another issue of importance to Gabbard — perhaps the greatest priority, judging by how much she speaks about it — is opposing what she calls America’s “interventionist regime-change wars.”

Gabbard said the loss “of Hawaii’s sons and daughters” in such wars “has made people very aware of the necessity to not repeat those mistakes and to not again put our young men and women into these counterproductive interventionist conflicts.”

It is something she experienced directly when she served during Operation Iraqi Freedom to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard Prime before Minister Modi talk. 8 june 2016

Gabbard shares a laugh with colleagues on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“As you know, I served in a medical unit during that deployment and saw firsthand the very high cost of war,” she said. “We’ve spent trillions on these regime-change wars for over a decade now, money that’s coming from the pockets of Hawaii’s people and people across this country that could have and should have been used to rebuild our infrastructure, to take care of our environment, to make sure our limited water resources are kept clean.”

Gabbard continued: “The list goes on and on of the major needs that we have within our communities that these dollars could have been used to address. And the situation is not getting any better.”

Late last year, the congresswoman introduced a House bill to prohibit the use of federal funds to assist anti-government efforts in Syria. While it has not been scheduled for a hearing,  Gabbard said it is important for Congress to speak out.

“It’s because we are extremely concerned now as well as looking into the future that our next president will continue and escalate this war to overthrow (President Bashar) Assad in Syria, which will not only exacerbate the refugees crisis that we’re facing there, but it will cost hundreds of thousands of more lives,” she said. “And it’s counterproductive, because it increases the strength of terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS. Not to speak of the fact that it brings us into a potential head-to-head conflict with Russia, the other nuclear power in the world.”

Not Yet Berned Out

Opposition to American-forced regime change is a major reason why Gabbard has campaigned so visibly for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. She has repeatedly argued that Hillary Clinton is the wrong choice for president in that regard, pointing to her support for the Iraq war in 2003 and more recently for U.S. involvement in Syria and Libya.

Clinton clinched her party’s nomination last week, but Gabbard has not stopped campaigning for Sanders.

Tuesday’s Washington, D.C., primary is the final one of the election cycle. Should Sanders carry his fight to the Democratic Party’s national convention in Philadelphia next month?

“I’m going to respect his decision,” Gabbard said. “The thing that I’m focused on is that, when you are asking the ‘what’s next’ question, there have been a number of really, really important issues that have been raised throughout this campaign. And I want to make sure these issues, in particular the issue I just talked about to you about, that I’ve talked about a lot on the trail for Bernie, that these issues don’t fall by the wayside.”

On Saturday, Gabbard used her Facebook page to urge people to sign a petition that would end the Democratic Party’s use of superdelegates:

Whether you are a Bernie Sanders supporter or a Hillary Clinton supporter, we should all agree that unelected party officials and lobbyists should not have a say in who the presidential nominee of our party is. That should be left up to the voters. If you agree, please add your name to our petition supporting an end to superdelegates today.

(By virtue of her office, Gabbard is one of Hawaii’s 10 superdelegates.)

As for Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, Gabbard said only this:

“Bernie Sanders is the only candidate I’m confident that is going to keep us out of these costly interventionist regime-change wars while simultaneously and vigorously fighting against terrorists who threaten us. The problem with Donald Trump is that no one really knows what Donald Trump stands for and what his polices will be if he’s elected. So, I’ll leave it at that.”

In the meantime, Gabbard is gearing up for her own election. She faces five opponents: another Democrat, a nonpartisan candidate and two Republicans. None, however, is widely known politically.

Hawaii Elections Guide 2016

Gabbard’s Democratic primary opponent, Maui activist Shay Chan Hodges, criticized her last week for not being “progressive enough” to represent Maui, which is part of the 2nd District.

While lauding Gabbard’s support of Sanders, Hodges complained about her criticism of the Obama administration for not saying the country is at war with “Islamic extremism” and criticized her for backing legislation to kill online gambling. 

The National Journal reported last year that Gabbard backed a bill introduced by Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah that would restore a federal ban on some gambling operations by extending it to include Internet gaming.

Gabbard declined to respond to Hodges’ criticism.

“I am completely focused on continuing my work, the work we have done and are continuing to do to make sure that we’re serving the people of Hawaii’s 2nd District and to make sure their voices are heard in Washington,” she said.

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