WASHINGTON — Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — the only two Democratic presidential hopefuls who are also military veterans — went head to head over U.S. military involvement overseas during the latest presidential debate Tuesday night.

The televised debate — the fourth of the 2020 campaign under the auspices of the Democratic National Committee — was hosted by CNN and the New York Times.

Throughout much of the night Gabbard struggled to get recognized. With 12 candidates it was the largest primary debate stage in U.S. history and most of the questions were directed at frontrunners Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Buttigieg.

Still, the congresswoman had an opportunity to break through when the conversation turned to foreign policy and, specifically, President Donald Trump’s decision to pull American troops out of northern Syria, leading to recent attacks by Turkey on the U.S.’s Kurdish allies in the region.

“Donald Trump has the blood of the Kurds on his hand,” Gabbard said.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard speech to Honolulu City Council.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, shown here speaking to the Honolulu City Council, has framed her presidential campaign around getting America out of what she calls “regime-change wars.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“But so do many of the politicians in our country from both parties who have supported this ongoing regime change war in Syria that started in 2011, along with many in the mainstream media, who have been championing and cheerleading this regime change war,” she said.

Gabbard tried to engage Warren directly and asked the Massachusetts senator if she would join her in calling for an end to the war in Syria.

The question seemed to catch Warren off guard. She initially said she didn’t want any troops in the Middle East, and that any withdrawal should be done thoughtfully. Then she pivoted to attack Trump for creating a humanitarian crisis and breathing new life into ISIS.

“We need to get out, but we need to do this through a negotiated solution,” Warren said. “There is no military solution in this region.”

The moderators then turned to Buttigieg, who says he’s opposed to U.S. involvement in so-called endless wars.

Buttigieg said Gabbard was “dead wrong” on the situation in Syria, and that the conflict occurring now is not the result of U.S. presence, but the “betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.”

Gabbard attempted to push back on Buttigieg by asking him if that meant he supported keeping troops in Syria indefinitely and arming terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and al-Nusra, who she said have been fighting on the ground there and endangering national security.

“No,” Buttigieg said. “you can put an end to endless war without embracing Donald Trump’s policy, as you’re doing.”

“What is an endless war if it’s not a regime change war?” Gabbard responded.

“What we were doing in Syria was keeping our word,” Buttigieg said. “Part of what makes it possible for the United States to get people to put their lives on the line to back us up is the idea that we will back them up, too.”

“This president has betrayed American values,” Buttigieg added. “Our credibility has been tattered.”

Foreign policy wasn’t the only area where Gabbard tried to differentiate herself from the crowd.

When asked about jobs and the economy, she said she supported businessman Andrew Yang’s universal basic income more than she did a federal jobs guarantee. She called Yang’s proposal a “good idea.” 

On the issue of abortion, Gabbard said that she supports a woman’s right to choose but that there should be restrictions after the third trimester is reached. She said abortion should not be an option unless there were severe health consequences, such as possible death, for the mother.

Gabbard’s participation in Tuesday’s debate comes just days after the congresswoman threatened to boycott the event, accusing the DNC and corporate media of “trying to hijack the entire election process.”

The congresswoman, who missed out on the September debate due to low poll numbers, has repeatedly attacked both the DNC and the press throughout her campaign.

Tuesday’s debate could be the last DNC-sanctioned forum for Gabbard. The DNC upped its polling thresholds for candidates to qualify for the next round of debates in November.

To participate, Gabbard must either receive 3% support in four qualifying polls between Sept. 13 and Nov. 13 or reach 5% support in two polls in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Nevada.

So far she has yet to hit the mark in a single poll, according to data tracked by Politico. Her best bets to appear to be in Iowa and New Hampshire, where she and her campaign have spent significant time and money, including on billboard advertising.

While Gabbard polls at less than 1% nationally, she tends to do better in both those states.

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