She was Hawaii's golden girl after winning a seat in Congress with support from top liberal groups, but now that Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has been critical of President Obama, her political reputation in the bluest of blue states is taking a hit.
That isn’t stopping the twice-deployed 33-year-old Army veteran from continuing to challenge the president, her home state's favorite son, over his refusal to identify terror groups like the Islamic State as driven by "radical Islam.”
“Every soldier knows this simple fact: If you don't know your enemy, you will not be able to defeat him,” Gabbard told FoxNews.com. “Our leaders must clearly identify the enemy as Islamist extremists, understand the ideology that is motivating them and attracting new recruits, and focus on defeating that enemy both militarily and ideologically.”
Gabbard has been hitting this message for weeks now, putting her at odds with many in her party who toe the line that the Islamic State should not be associated with Islam.
“Every soldier knows this simple fact: If you don't know your enemy, you will not be able to defeat him."
- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii
Gabbard called "mind-boggling" Obama's refusal to associate ISIS with the Muslim religion, even though the terrorist army is emphatic it is enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam.
"[Obama] is completely missing the point of this radical Islamic ideology that’s fueling these people,” she said.
Her comments have stunned political experts in her home state.
“It is very, very unusual for a junior member in the president's own party to criticize him,” said Colin Moore, assistant professor at the University of Hawaii Department of Political Science. “Especially for someone considered a rising star in the party. This is a serious gamble for her.”
Michael W. Perry, of Hawaii's most popular KSSK Radio's "Perry & Price Show," said that "while Gabbard is correct in her 'emperor has no clothes' moment, she may have lost her future seat on Hawaii's political bench." He said she's committed "a mortal sin" by challenging Obama, and "now the knives are out."
For now, she's taking her hits in the media.
The editorial board of the online political news journal Civil Beat, owned by eBay Founder Pierre Omiydar, said "the bright-red Right" is promoting her criticism but she is not "presenting serious policy arguments."
"One wonders where Gabbard is going with this. Sure, the Iraq war veteran and rising political star is achieving national prominence in a high-profile discussion. But at what cost?" the editorial board wrote, saying her comments could be dismissed "as pandering from a young pol with lofty ambitions."
Bob Jones, columnist for the Oahu-based Midweek, wrote a scathing piece suggesting Gabbard should be challenged in 2016. "I take serious issue when somebody who's done a little non-fighting time in Iraq, and is not a Middle East or Islamic scholar, claims to know better than our President and Secretary of State how to fathom the motivations of terrorists, or how to refer to them beyond the term that best describes them -- terrorists," Jones said.
Gabbard acknowledges the political risks. “I'm not naïve,” Gabbard said. “It could hurt me politically, but I don’t worry about it because that's not what I care about. ... Our national security and the future of our country is infinitely more important than partisan politics or my personal political future."
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who directed the Defense Intelligence Agency, said this should not be a political issue. “[Gabbard] has taken a very courageous stand in a party that just refuses to face reality,” he said.
Decorated intelligence officer and noted specialist on Islamic law, Stephen Coughlin, who authored the book "Catastrophic Failure: Blindfolding America in the Face of Jihad," set for release in March, also sided with Gabbard. “Rep. Gabbard is correct as a matter of history, she is correct as a matter of current events, and she is correct of published Islamic law.”
While Gabbard has many detractors, she has a growing number of supporters, including a former Hawaii GOP congressional candidate who spent seven years in a POW camp in Vietnam.
“It is encouraging to see a bright young woman like Congresswoman Gabbard in politics in Hawaii, speaking up the way she is doing,” said retired Lt. Col. Orson Swindle, who was awarded 20 military decorations for valor in combat including two silver stars and two purple hearts.
Born in American Samoa as one of five children, Gabbard moved to Hawaii as a toddler. Her parents, strict social conservatives, were elected to public office in Hawaii -- her father, Mike Gabbard, to the state Senate, and her mother, Carol Gabbard, to the statewide Board of Education.
In 2002 at age 21, Gabbard was the youngest person ever elected to the Hawaii Legislature. The following year, she enlisted with the Hawaii National Guard, and was voluntarily deployed in 2004 to Iraq with the 29th Brigade. On the military front, she made a name for herself, awarded the Meritorious Service Medal during Operation Iraqi Freedom and designated a distinguished honor graduate at Fort McClellan's Officer Candidate School.
After her first deployment, Gabbard worked as a legislative aide in Washington, D.C., to U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, a beloved Hawaiian senator who advocated for his fellow veterans, until she was deployed a second time -- to the volatile "Sunni Triangle" in Iraq.
"She along with the soldiers of the 29th didn't spend all their time inside the wire, and witnessed the horrific Muslim on Muslim violence and carnage in the name of Allah," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, the adjutant general for Hawaii during Gabbard’s deployment.
After returning home, Gabbard was elected to the Honolulu City Council in 2010. She stepped down to run for Congress in 2012, taking on the well-financed former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. Much to the surprise of political observers, she easily beat Hannemann in the primary, largely with the help of the progressive veteran group VoteVets.org. She was also backed by Emily’s List and the Sierra Club.
Winning a second term in 2014 was easy. Throughout, she has been defined by her contrasts:
A captain in the Hawaii National Guard, she also was featured on the pages of Vogue magazine and named as one of The Hill’s 50 Most Beautiful People.
She’s a left-leaning Democrat until it comes to foreign affairs.
She is a junior member of her party, but not afraid to speak up when she feels the highest-ranking member of her own party is wrong.
While she suits up at work, she leaves behind formalities to go surfing. She also is the first Hindu, the first Samoan, and one of the first two female combat veterans to serve as a member of Congress.
Some analysts believe she has stirred up controversy in preparation to challenge U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the primary election in 2016. When asked by Fox News if she will run for U.S. Senate, Gabbard said “no.”
“Anyone who thinks I'm playing politics with national security issues clearly doesn't know me,” Gabbard said.
Malia Zimmerman is an award-winning investigative reporter focusing on crime, homeland security, illegal immigration crime, terrorism and political corruption. Follow her on twitter at @MaliaMZimmerman