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Vote For the War Criminal -- It's Important!

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The choices available to left-leaning voters in Louisiana's 1991 gubernatorial election might not have been all that appealing but there was at least the consolation that the race produced one of the great bumper stickers of all time: "Vote For the Crook. It's Important." When the incumbent governor failed to make the run-off, the state's voters had to choose between Edwin Edwards and David Duke. Edwards, the crook, was a past three-term Governor attempting a comeback. The belief that he had larceny in his heart was widespread, although he had actually beaten corruption charges in court. (The belief also proved well founded -- he would be convicted and jailed a decade later.) But there are times when a crook is not the worst you can do. Duke, you see, was the former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, also known to occasionally don a Nazi uniform during his student days at Louisiana State University.

Ethical challenges notwithstanding, Edwards did have his good points. Notably not a racist, he was known to appoint blacks and women to high positions in his administration. So the unforgettable bumper sticker spoke for a lot of people who felt that, while it might be unpleasant, the choice was obvious. No need to claim Edwards was anything but what he was, but likewise no cause for hesitation in voting for him -- a situation worth keeping in mind during this year's presidential campaign when the slogan of the day for left-leaning voters might well be "Vote for the War Criminal -- It's Important."

We probably won't see too many bumper stickers with this provocative slogan, though. There aren't all that many people willing to say both parts of it out loud. There ought to be, however, for a couple or reasons, the most basic being that it's accurate. The late Vaclav Havel used to speak of the importance of "living in truth." When you lived under a government committed to the Big Lie and the forces arrayed against you were overwhelming, he argued that at least you could personally live in truth and not perpetuate the society's official lies. And when Havel went from being a dissident playwright jailed by the government of Czechoslovakia to becoming the country's first post-Communist president, his words carried great weight in this country.

But then the U.S., like most countries, has always been enthusiastic about people speaking truth to power -- in other places -- places where it doesn't like the government. And it has sometimes even been quite critical of citizens of other nations when they failed to stand up for the truth -- at least as we saw it -- within their own societies. When the people of Serbia, for instance, seemed too supportive of Slobodan Milosevic, their head of state during the civil wars that broke up Yugoslavia in the 1990's, and failed to stop or even speak out against the war crimes their armies committed in Bosnia and Kosovo, there were those in America who accused them of being "Milosevic's willing executioners."

But, again like most countries, the U.S. is not always so quick to condemn the failings of its own policies and leaders. Some will no doubt gag at the very thought of considering Barack Obama in the same light as a convicted felon like Edwin Edwards. And it's true that, unlike Edwards, Obama isn't hiding anything; he'll never be caught -- the President of the United States commits war crimes openly (even when they may be officially secret). Likewise, there's little likelihood of his ever standing trial for them, since international tribunals don't indict the guy with the biggest army.

Is he really a war criminal?

It's not that the possibility of an American president being a war criminal is a foreign concept to Obama's supporters. Many of them actually considered his predecessor, George W. Bush, to be one. But Obama himself? Well, it's true enough that Obama isn't guilty of anything as egregious as starting the Iraq War, but really the matter is quite clear, nonetheless. We just have to go through the simple exercise of imagining the situation if it were Iran launching missiles against "targets" in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and justifying its actions on the grounds that there were people within each of these countries who hated Iran and therefore posed threats to its well being. Denunciations of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- whom we don't like anyhow -- as a war criminal would come from all corners of American society. And they would be justified.

Likewise, the case against Obama is actually as simple as that. In reality he has undertaken exactly the actions that the above paragraph imagines Ahmadinejad to have done. We are not in a state of war -- just or unjust -- with any of these countries. Yet, while none of the facts about Obama's actions in this realm are disputed, they are utterly absent from the public discussion in this presidential election season. Of course, we can understand how the President's campaign staff would have little interest in him being called a war criminal in the midst of an election campaign. It would be an inconvenient truth, to say the least. But the resistance to facing the facts seems to go even deeper than that among his supporters.
Pakistan's ambassador to the U.N. has claimed that US drone strikes have killed more than 1,000 civilians in his country. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates a toll as high as 4,000 in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia combined, since 2002. (These totals include the Bush years, but it is generally agreed that the drone-strike pace has picked up since Obama entered the White House.) But to listen to the President's enthusiasts, you'd think this was some kind of technicality -- to the extent that they notice it at all.

In fact, in the absence of much serious antiwar activity these days, or even a Republican opposition interested in attacking him on this front, some even claim that Obama is sort of a peace candidate. After all, the arguments go, four years ago he campaigned for an end to the Iraq War and actually did end it after taking office. And now he is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Yes, but. The Iraq War was ended upon terms negotiated by (or we might say forced upon) its perpetrator, George W. Bush. Obama's plan called for maintaining troops there for a longer period. And, as for Afghanistan, there are currently twice as many American troops there as on the day Obama took office, so right now the troops he's withdrawing are the ones he sent there.

Then there's the matter of Obama claiming he had no obligation to seek Congressional approval for bombing Libya because the War Powers Act, which requires such approval, didn't apply since no Americans would be harmed in the operation. Does anyone seriously believe that there would not have been an uproar had George Bush tried to evade the reaches of a law whose passage constituted one of the greatest victories of the anti-Vietnam War movement? Unfortunately, rather than Obama being any kind of peace candidate, there's more truth to the Internet posting contrasting a picture of a large 2007 antiwar demonstration and one of a minuscule 2012 protest, with the caption, "Barack Obama -- Making war cool for the left since 2009."

How can it be important to re-elect him then?

So if we were to consider Obama as he really is; that is, among other things, a war criminal, how can we even vote for him, much less argue that it's important to do so? First off, there's the fact that his opponent Mitt Romney promises to do even worse in the foreign policy realm. He asserts that he would have the power to launch a military action against Iran without Congressional approval (just as Obama did in the case of Libya.) So far as the drone strikes go, when former Missouri Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty claimed Romney would increase them because the ones currently happening "don't go far enough," there was no denial coming from the Romney campaign. He wants to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan a little more slowly and perhaps leave them there a little longer. And he pledges to stop Obama's "reckless defense cuts" and increase our record level military budget.

In short, we face nothing like the dilemma that the (admittedly unlikely) nomination of a candidate like Ron Paul might have posed in presenting an opponent with an unpalatable domestic program combined with a foreign policy far better than Obama's. While it might be a fair assessment that a Romney administration's military policies would ultimately turn out to be essentially the same as Obama's, there simply doesn't seem to be any case to be made for their being any better. We would, at best, inaugurate a new war criminal.

On the other hand, on domestic policies there are clear opportunities for decline. Tax policy would almost certainly skew even further in favor of the wealthy under Romney. Privatization, at least partial, of Social Security and Medicare seem definite possibilities. Appointments to the Supreme Court, the National Labor Relations Board and a host of other agencies could only get worse. And while we might not see much positive improvement in federal labor law during a second Obama term, the Republican state administrations in Wisconsin and Ohio have shown the way for how things could get worse.

Abortion rights, the environment -- this list could go on and on, but it's not as if those who object to voting for a candidate such as Obama are not aware of them. The actual arguments against seem to come down to three main points. For some, it's the belief that "the lesser of two evils is still evil" and they're just not going to validate the situation by voting for one of those evils. But while this is certainly a coherent point of view from a philosophical standpoint, it is not fundamentally a political stance, in that politics by definition has to do with making choices between real world options.

The more common and genuinely political objection is that supporting a Democratic Party candidate hinders building a real alternative, perhaps in a "third party." Without even entering the debate about whether a third party works within the particular structure of the American political system, it's impossible to miss the fact that there is no serious third party effort happening this election. It's also hard to avoid the conclusion that this is due in no small part to a widespread judgement that Ralph Nader's 2000 effort was ultimately counter-productive.

The third traditional line of argument against a "lesser of two evils" vote holds that things have to get worse before they get better, so we might as well let the greater of the two evils win because only then will people begin to seek out real alternatives. The Bush/Cheney years appear to have put this one to rest for awhile, though. After all, what did people turn to after experiencing that? Barack Obama.

(I should acknowledge that the Electoral College, that anti-democratic 18th Century relic that occasionally awards the presidency to the runner-up, as it did in 2000, does have the upside of allowing for protest votes in non-competitive states. So if you live, say, in the District of Columbia, where Obama got 92 percent of the vote four years ago, or Wyoming where John McCain got 65 percent, you can probably go ahead and vote your conscience for Jill Stein or Rocky Anderson with little worry. If Obama should wind up winning with less than a majority of the popular vote, well, that didn't seem to hurt Bush any.)

The road forward

But the real point of saying "Vote for the war criminal -- it's important" out loud is political rather than philosophical. The road to electoral relevancy for the American left lies in having both sides -- those who think of the President as a war criminal and those who believe it's important to reelect him -- acknowledge that the other also has it right. Failing that, we will continue to function as less than the sum of our parts: on the one hand, a group of loyal campaign workers who submerge their political differences and forego any possibility of dramatically changing mainstream politics, and on the other, a protest group that entirely opts out of the presidential electoral process and thereby also foregoes any possibility of dramatically changing mainstream politics.

For some reason we Americans seem to have a harder time dealing with these contradictions than some others do. One of the most frequently quoted passages from F. Scott Fitzgerald comes from his novel, "The Crack Up": "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." 
But in other parts of the world being able to do that won't necessarily put you in the advanced class -- France, for instance. Unlike many other European countries such as the United Kingdom or Germany which have a straight parliamentary system with the top parties choosing a prime minister from within their ranks, France has a hybrid parliamentary/presidential system. The presidency goes to the winner of a runoff election between the top two finishers in a first round that serves a winnowing function similar to our presidential primaries.

Now, given Louisiana's French heritage, it's not impossible that there was a French version of those 1991 Edwards bumper stickers -- "Votez pour l'escroc. Il le faut!" If so, the left in France could have used a few of them for their 2002 presidential election, when the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin was upset in the first round by the far-right National Front candidate, the notoriously anti-immigrant Jean-Marie Le Pen, and they too faced the prospect of backing a crook, the incumbent President Jacques Chirac. Chirac, the candidate of the mainstream right, was known for the corruption of his administration as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995. A controversial 1999 judicial ruling granted him immunity from prosecution so long as he remained President. Electing Chirac, then, not only kept him on as president but extended his immunity for another five years. (He would be convicted of embezzling funds in 2009.) And yet, given the choices available, the French left showed little hesitation in voting for him and he won with a record 82 percent of the vote. The left's decision to support the crook confused no one -- it was important.

Nor did it prevent the left from returning to the presidency this year with the election of Socialist Francois Hollande. Hollande faced a dynamic first round challenge from his left by Jean-Luc Melenchon, candidate of the Left Front. But although Melenchon had himself quit the Socialist Party in 2008, he showed little hesitancy in supporting Hollande in the runoff. Why? The French Left takes itself seriously. It understands the nature of political choices.
It's well past time for the American Left to do the same. This year the choice is clear -- it's important to support the war criminal. The more difficult question is what we can and will do to improve the choices available four or eight years from now.
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Tom Gallagher was a Bernie Sanders delegate elected from California's 12th Congressional District. He is the author of "The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes on the Military Industrial Complex."

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