Barack Obama was the first president elected on a platform of withdrawing American troops from an ongoing war. Now, though political pundits and the reporters rarely mention it, Obama’s re-election depends on winning back the peace vote in November. This week the wars will will received a brief “cameo” role, according to the Los Angeles Times, because Mitt Romney is taking his campaign to London, Israel and Poland. The Hollywood analogy is apt: it’s as if the trillion-dollar wars can be cut and pasted from a choreographed script.
Based on what little is known, a Romney presidency would return America to the Bush-era foreign and military policies. Romney’s key advisers include the neoconservatives who championed the Iraq War, resumed hostilities with Russia and at least rhetorical support for an Israeli strike against Iran. The hawks in the Republican wings include John Bolton, Randy Scheunemann and, in the background, the deep-pocketed Sheldon Adelson. Obama’s campaign team has tried for weeks to frame Romney as too willing to go to war, an argument, according to the New York Times, “that could be damaging if it manages to stick, since Americans have grown war-weary after a decade of combat.”
While the election will turn on economic conditions, those have been defined through too narrow a lens. It is dishonest to compartmentalize the economy without totaling the trillions in unfunded war spending that has ballooned the deficit. The same arguments Obama uses against Romney on Bush-era Republican economics—that he promises a return to failed policies—can be made about Romney’s foreign policy; that his administration will recycle the failed policies of the neocons. Obama can link the wars to his economic crisis by noting that taxpayers will save $150 billion per year by winding down two quagmires (the combined direct costs of Iraq and Afghanistan since FY 2008 is in the range of $760 billion). He can accuse the deficit hawks of hypocrisy due to their profligate spending on unfunded wars.
One reason for the disappearance of the wars from the presidential contest so far is the general lack of Beltway recognition of the peace movement as an interest group, especially as one that might sway an election. This is astonishing, since Obama owed his primary victories over Hillary Clinton largely to his stance on Iraq, and the Democrats won the House and Senate in 2006, according to the Gallup poll, because 61 percent of voters named Iraq as their top priority. Not that centrist Democrats took up the issue; it was as if when peace breaks out it should be treated as an allergy (or “syndrome”). More recently, grassroots networks have fortified Representative Barbara Lee and Representative Jim McGovern, who annually produce 100–200 House votes against Afghan funding or softer resolutions demanding accelerated withdrawals. Representative John Conyers, retiring Representative Dennis Kucinich and former Senator. Russ Feingold have relied on grassroots activism as well.
The peace constituency is a discernible voting bloc defined by its pattern of behavior in 2006 and 2008. Its attitude this year could be an invisible margin of difference in battleground states. Certainly Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin have thousands of voters yet to be mobilized in the name of peace. If millions of dollars are spent routinely on trying to increase Democratic turnout among blacks, Latinos or union members, it is curious why no such attention is paid to getting out the peace vote.
Of course, the peace movement is less an organized lobby than a fractious network of local networks, responding to ups and downs of crises, yet it remains capable of coming together as a discernible bloc in critical elections. It has no lavish offices or insider-lobbyists. MoveOn tried with mixed results to serve that role, before moving on to other issues. Peace activists often are reduced to being used as grassroots volunteers asked to make phone calls or write letters on behalf of legislation they never had a hand in writing. In Washington terms, they are not “at the table.” Nor are they recognized as a caucus in the Democratic Party. It is no wonder so many feel disrespected.
Sensing they have no voice, many peace voters are fed up with Obama, the Democratic party and politics in general. They do not volunteer, are not energized and may not even vote. These voters tend to be white and isolated from the currents of loyalty to Obama that run deep in the African-American community. As detached independents, they lack the material interest in electoral outcomes that draws groups like organized labor into electoral battles. These voters—potentially non-voters—go so far as to complain that Obama and Romney are essentially identical, that Democrats and Republicans are Tweedledee and Tweedledum, even that Obama has been worse than George Bush. They dismiss as an illusion any overarching economic debate between Obama and Romney over corporate power and Wall Street. They implicitly believe that Democratic voters (seniors, blacks, Latinos, women, labor, environmentalists, LGBT activists, etc.) are mistaken in perceiving that the Obama-Romney difference matters.
There are no “fringes” in a 50-50 election. Consultants on both sides claim that the November result will depend on turnout. Again and again, 1 or 2 percent margins are the difference between winning and losing. Elections are settled by fringes, at least as often as the more-targeted undecided.
Democrats generally try to win elections, while the Republican Party, because it represents a fading demographic minority, is forced to steal them. The Republicans steal them primarily with money, but also with voter suppression and disenfranchisement laws that reduce turnout among the young, students and racial minorities. The Republicans are hoping to dampen or prevent turnout among anti-war voters just enough to squeeze themselves back into power.
To win the election, Obama’s challenge is to ignore many—not all—of the traditional Democratic establishment insiders and reach out to the peace vote.
To do so credibly, Obama will need to recognize that he himself has muddied (and bloodied) his message through his escalation of drone warfare, his secret counterterrorism programs and his embrace of the growing secrecy of state power. He cannot win the peace vote on a message of ending one war while escalating others, nor by promising transparency and then restoring the CIA to its 1950s role of secret wars and coups.
Obama needs to “pivot” toward a peace platform while not appearing to flip-flop. In response, peace networks will have to awaken to a clear awareness of what is at stake.
§ He already stresses that he is ending two quagmires at a savings of trillions of dollars, which will be invested in jobs and domestic priorities; he needs to accelerate Afghanistan troop withdrawals and diplomacy before November election, to send a message that 2014 is a real deadline; and he needs to clarify that Afghanistan is not intended to become a sanctuary for counterterrorism and US bases in the region;
§ Obama needs to declare that he is ending the Long War, a counterinsurgency doctrine going back to the tiger cages in Vietnam that assumes fifty to eighty years of continuous combat against Islamic fundamentalism;
§ On these issues, he needs to demand whether Romney agrees, forcing Romney to answer whether he intends to bring back the Bush-Cheney-neoconservative policies once again.
Those are the easy steps, positions Obama already has taken, and which more or less fulfill his pledges to wind down Iraq and Afghanistan. But events move on, and his pledges on Iraq and Afghanistan are not enough. The hard part is that Obama will need to carefully acknowledge that his own counterterrorism policies, while killing leaders and disrupting networks, have also spread insurgent cells to other countries, angered many millions of Muslims and led to a new era of warfare symbolized by drones, cyber-sabotage and revival of CIA clandestine wars. Obama understandably will seek to defend his policies, but—and here is the pivot—he needs to promise a review and overhaul of the 1973 War Powers Act, which Congress passed to check the imperial power of the Nixon presidency. The WPA is about the past; it does not encompass any definitions or provisions for transparency and accountability in the new era of warfare that has begun.
Obama also can revive hope by progressing towards nuclear disarmament, a cause that goes back to his university years, against Romney’s stark defense of expanded nuclear options.
Obama also will have avert a war over Iran while arguing that Romney—a close friend and former business partner of Netanyahu—would be more likely to support one for political gain.
Obama should reiterate his promise of a “conversation” about the failed war on drugs that has left 60,000 dead in Mexico and threatens to become a covert war over many continents.
Under increasing Republican pressure over national security leaks, Obama should avoid or resist any indictment or extradition proceedings against Julian Assange. Such a move would alienate a large number of peace advocates, civil libertarians, liberals and even journalists who well remember the Pentagon Papers trial, which ended in a mistrial and helped bring down Richard Nixon.
Will these messages bring back the peace vote? Not on the scale of 2008—or even 2006, when the Republican hawks were dumped at the polls. Will Obama make any of this wish list part of his platform? At this point, it seems doubtful beyond his current pledge to end the two quagmires. But what if that’s not enough to bring back the peace vote? Nothing happens on its own without pressure from below. His evolving positions supporting the Dream Act students, marriage equality and gays in the military shows that the president can adapt. If the same coalition that fought for “healthcare, not warfare” during the past two years makes its presence known as early as the Democratic convention platform hearings and everywhere on the ground in battleground states, and if Romney is framed as a recycled Republican hawk, anything is possible.