This op-ed appeared at The Huffington Post on August 3, 2012.
President Obama and the Democrats need a new peace initiative to increase turnout and voting by pro-peace voters who will make a critical difference in this November's election.
The president has already recognized the importance of this constituency. In every speech he points to winding down the Iraq War and the Afghanistan quagmire as among his achievements. The savings, he also notes, are billions of tax dollars that should be invested in his mission of rebuilding America.
Why is a further initiative needed, when everyone agrees that the economy and character issues are the most important in voters' minds?
Because many pro-peace voters have been disillusioned by the president's unilateral escalation of drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere; the lack of transparency around those drone attacks; secret military interventions in many countries under the banner of counterterrorism; the assertion of executive control over interventions like Libya; the approval of assassinations and cyber-war measures under the sole approval of the president; and the shrinking of civil liberties and Congressional checks and balances in this new era of warfare. A decision on the US and/or Israel attacking Iran may be imminent but who would know? The War Powers Act does not apply unless there is "sustained fighting" by American "ground troops."
In doing what they believe is necessary to protect US interests, the president and many Democrats have deflated their base among pro-peace and progressive voters. To expect that those voters will return to 2008-levels of enthusiasm, or turn out at 2008 levels of participation, is mistaken.
These voters are not undecided between Obama and Romney. They are undecided about whether to vote at all, or to cast a protest vote for the Greens.
We have been here before. We know how this could end.
Surely, if the Obama campaign is spending tens of millions in pursuit of a handful of "undecided" voters in swing states—their numbers are only 4 percent in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania—the campaign also can invest in trying to increase turnout on its pro-peace flank this November.
The president's historic initiatives on behalf of the Dream Act students and the LGBT community are current examples of how to bring back key constituencies from their disillusionment with earlier policies.
If it is not enough to campaign on claims of winding down two wars, what more is needed?
One possibility is for the president to recognize, without having to backtrack, that his policies have opened a new era of warfare that renders the 1973 War Powers Act all but obsolete. He can be an effective Commander-In-Chief while disavowing a return to an Imperial Presidency.
The proposal need not be a detailed blueprint, partly because the subject is complex. But the president can pledge to start a conversation about how to enhance the democratic rule of law, the constitutional role of Congressional oversight and consent, and a broader, re-invigorated place for the media and civil society in the process of deciding whether, when, and for how long America goes to war.
However much Obama extols his Libyan policy, he should remember how close he came to rejection by a bipartisan coalition in the House, and how he was forced to conceal internal administration memos questioning the legality of that policy. He and his team should remember how difficult it was to maintain that the War Powers Act did not apply to Libya, because, they claimed, there were no American ground troops, no "sustained fighting,” no "active" exchange of fire, and so on. More Libyas are on the horizon, or perhaps already in the works.
A future-oriented promise of reconsidering and updating the War Powers Act would make pro-peace voters see a new hope and new agenda for an Obama second term, thus spurring their turnout. There is no downside to such a pledge. If he needs a rationale, Obama can simply say that his policies have opened a new chapter of warfare that requires an expansion of the law. Romney, the media, and the Pentagon are not likely to advocate for the expansion of executive power, a new McCarthyism or a return to the Nixon era.
Some next steps might include:
- A plank in the Democratic platform, although time is short to include one;
- Consensus support from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who would hold forums to develop the proposal, and emphasize it in their fall campaigns;
- Convening of a task force of civil libertarians and lawyers working on detention and torture issues, to solicit their recommendations;
- Convening a conversation with mainstream media advocates concerned with the erosion of First Amendment protections;
- Convening clergy to increase input on the moral dimensions of the new warfare.
If enough voices declare that a stronger vision of peace is needed, anything can happen in the course of this election. John F. Kennedy's advisers did not want him to announce the Peace Corp in October 1960, but he did so in response to a student movement. JFK also called Coretta Scott King when her husband Martin was in jail. Looking back, those gestures were history-turning events.
A call by this president to expand the War Powers Act and avert any return to the Imperial Presidency might have the same ripple effect this fall.