WASHINGTON — When Hawaii state Sen. Kai Kahele first saw images of the 82nd Airborne boarding planes bound for the Middle East after the U.S. killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, he imagined himself in the cockpit, prepping to fly into a war zone.
For Kahele, it was a familiar feeling.
Kahele, who’s running for Congress, is a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard and has flown numerous combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He knows what it’s like to deliver soldiers to battle. He’s also stood watch as their flag-draped caskets were unloaded from the cargo hold back onto American soil where they were reunited with their grieving families.
“I was one of those pilots sitting in that C17 getting ready to fly those guys overseas, so I know what it feels like,” Kahele said.
“I can only imagine how their families felt, many of them having just celebrated Christmas and New Year’s, to all of a sudden get a 72-hour notice of deployment to the Middle East, all because of an action and order taken by the president of the United States.”
Kahele was in Washington, D.C., last week as the U.S. House of Representatives considered a war powers resolution to limit President Donald Trump’s ability to take further military action against Iran without congressional approval.
Kahele said he would have voted for it, just like Hawaii’s U.S. Reps. Ed Case and Tulsi Gabbard, whose seat he’s hoping to fill.
Democrats, in particular, were skeptical of Trump’s legal justification for taking out Soleimani, someone who officials have said has the blood of hundreds of American soldiers on his hands, and worried that such overt aggression with Iran could start a war.
The Trump administration had said that Soleimani posed an imminent threat to the country and that the U.S. wanted to stop a war rather than start one with his execution.
Officials have also argued that the president had the authority to launch the strike under a 2002 congressional authorization that allowed the U.S. to go to war with Iraq.
Kahele said Soleimani was clearly an enemy of the U.S. who had killed Americans and destabilized parts of the Middle East.
At the same time, he said he worried that killing Soleimani would be the spark to inflame a region that he described as “a delicate tinder box.”
Maybe the Trump administration had a valid reason for the risk, he said, but as of yet he hasn’t heard it.
“I’m very skeptical that what they’re telling us is the truth,” Kahele said. “It feels like 2003 all over again. And that’s just not right because peoples’ lives are at risk.”
In Kahele, voters in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District will see something familiar — a post-9/11 veteran.
Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who’s currently serving the district, is a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard. She’s also served two tours of duty in the Middle East, once as part of a medical unit in Iraq and again in Kuwait as a military police officer.
Kahele joined the Air National Guard in 1999 and was in the midst of flight training when the Twin Towers fell in New York. Gabbard, meanwhile, was sworn in shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
Both supported the U.S. mission at the time — to take out Saddam Hussein, who they were told had weapons of mass destruction — but have since come to the conclusion they were duped by their own government into believing a lie.
“It was the wrong decision,” Kahele said, of the U.S. going to war with Iraq.
“But as I sat there with the rest of the country and watched Secretary of State Colin Powell give the United Nations his weapons of mass destruction briefing, I can remember saying to myself, ‘Yeah, man, we gotta go. They got nukes somewhere.’ I was convinced. Secretary Powell was a man of stature in the Bush administration. He was someone I trusted.”
If Kahele were in Congress at the time, he would have stood alone among Hawaii’s federal delegation. Both of the state’s senators, Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka voted against the War in Iraq. So, too, did then-U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie. Both Inouye and Akaka were veterans of World War II.
Congresswoman Patsy Mink, a well-known peace advocate, died before she could vote on the resolution, but her successor, Ed Case, said that had he been there he would have voted for it.
Kahele, like Gabbard and many others, has grown weary with the cost of war. He says the U.S. should pull its troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that he supports ending American military involvement in Saudi Arabia’s civil war in Yemen.
Both chambers of Congress approved a war powers resolution in 2019 to stop U.S. intervention in Yemen, but Trump vetoed the measure.
“Considering that we’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan for almost 18 years — thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars spent — I don’t think we’re in any better situation than we were post 9/11,” Kahele said.
“I don’t think we should have a sustained, long-term presence in those countries, and I don’t think they want us there. At some point they have to be able to stand on their own. We can’t keep holding their hand year over year over year.”
Kahele wants to repeal the 2001 congressional authorization of military force that was passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That authorization has been used repeatedly over the years to justify the deployment of troops around the world to support anti-terrorism efforts.
Kahele says that if anything Congress should pass a new authorization that is narrowly tailored and that includes sunset provisions so that it is not used in perpetuity.
He’s wary of the U.S. becoming the world’s police, but he tempers that with a desire to hold the country up as a standard bearer for other democracies around the globe.
That doesn’t mean toppling dictators, he said, but if there are atrocities taking place, such as genocide and ethnic cleansing, that’s a “red line.”
“I think we have a moral obligation to humanity and to different communities that are oppressed and their lives are at risk,” Kahele said.
“But it costs a lot of money to fight in all these foreign wars, trillions and trillions of dollars. Look at what all that money could do in our country for our infrastructure and for our education system. It’s a difficult balance.”
Kahele has a clear path to Congress, at least for now. Gabbard has said she will not run for re-election and no other major candidates have announced they will run for her seat.
Kahele said that if he’s elected he’ll likely follow in the footsteps of many of his predecessors, including Gabbard and former members Mark Takai and Colleen Hanabusa, by seeking a seat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Takai, who died in 2016, was a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Army National Guard.
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