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
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.
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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?
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
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
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?
(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
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.