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      Romney Threat to Peace, Can Obama Mobilize Peace Vote?

      This article appeared at The Nation on July 26, 2012.

      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 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 is 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 neo-conservatives 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." (New York Times, July 25)

      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 which has ballooned the deficit. The same arguments which 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 neo-cons. 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, grass roots networks have fortified Rep. Barbara Lee and Rep. Jim McGovern who annually produce 100-200 House votes against Afghan funding or softer resolutions demanding accelerated withdrawals. Rep. John Conyers, retiring Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and former Sen. Russ Feingold have relied on grass-roots 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. They have 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, one or two 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, which assumes 50-80 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 which 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 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 vision of progress 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, which 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.

      See also, "Romney Leads on Deficits, Economy, Jobs."

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      Reader Comments (5)

      Don't know who wrote this article,as it is unsigned, but the
      author apparantly does not recall Richard Nixon's campaign
      of 1968 and his so-called "secret plan to end the war."
      The fact that the secret plan involved escalation of the war
      is irrelavent, as he basically was courting the votes of those
      who wanted an end to the war.

      July 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJan Stevens

      Apparently the Obama administration has launched a covert war in Syria. The heavily armed Islamist rebels are receiving weapons from the west, undoubtedly the CIA. Yet, nobody in the U.S. Congress nor the print press has denounced this obvious violation of international law. The breakdown of respect for international law may be a preface for gradual devolution into a permanent state of war, perhaps even global war. Obama has already deployed Marines in Australia, allegedly because of the "threat" of China. We, the majority, must resist the warlords. They have redefined American foreign policy. The invasion of Libya, the dispersal of its oil wealth, the current neocolonial war in Syria, and the impending war in Iran are real threats to our freedom here at home in America. All the tools of autocratic government, a police state, have already been legislated and endorsed by the Bush and Obama regimes. It can happen here. I recall that candidate Woodrow Wilson campaigned as the peace candidate; and his administration forced America into a war between equally disreputable European empires.
      Tom, do you believe that Obama's cabinet, his NSA, and his Joint Chiefs, and his Democratic Senate will hesitate to make America a permanent warfare state? If Obama is the Wilson of the 21st century, peace voters should launch a series of "voters boycott demonstrations" in September and October. This may be the last chance for the peace movement to deter the trajectory America from its course toward ever-expanding warfare throughout the world.

      July 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEuGene Miller

      this article is the best proof why nothing will change :-/
      You Americans should get rid of the two party system that always will create ONE ruling elite.
      Here in Germany in the 80ies, a new party 'Die Grünen' launched
      and now 30 years later we allready have one state with a 'green' Governor :-)
      And in the last two years another new party 'The Pirates' have launched
      and they can already count on more then 10% of all votes.

      World is changing. Because of the internet, individualism is growing
      and people no longer want to identify themselves with one of two people's party (SPD and CDU here in Germany)

      Of course, this will lead into instability
      and the christian failures cling to power and fear any change.
      The two party system will lead into decadence, corruption and finaly break-up.

      'the only way to get rid of something is to make it obsolete' (Robo Durden)

      launching a 'peace vote movement' will only strengthen the ruling elite.
      launching a 'we-are-one-world party' can change the system.
      Have a look at 15 million people in 194 countries.
      you can count on them :-)

      the born loser

      'if you fear losing, you have already become a failure'

      July 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterroland

      Tom, I like your Twitter aphorisms. "I believe in hopeless causes, don’t believe the destruction of the planet is inevitable, each generation has its chance 2 surprise the world". You're right. The Peace Movement has had major victories. It helped prevent a nuclear war. It prevented Vietnam from being conquered and reduced to a colony like Guam or Puerto Rico. It forced the government to abandon the draft. If the military had access to unlimited conscript manpower, the U.S. would already a military oligarchy. - - - Hello Roland from Germany. Your right about the German Green Party. It's a success. It prevented Germany from sending soldiers to Iraq. You're not a loser. I suspect that you're unemployed, along with a few million other people in Europe and America. Stay active in electoral politics. Talk to establishment people. They are not the enemy. They may value your perspective. You are the vanguard of a movement for a better world.

      July 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEuGene Miller

      Its clear that we have the president that stands with little integrity. He is clearly the best campaigner with no interest in peace unless people come out. He fooled us once, it won't happen again. We expect democrats to march in goosestep to foreign policies that serve our empire status. He has failed the peace movement and frankly thats the only issue that really matters. At least Jimmy Carter has the balls to say no military assistance to countries that violate human rights. Its clear when you have little integrity of a stand for anything other than whatever the political wind blows there is not much of a person there. The great conformist win in November or lose it will make no difference.

      July 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHector

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