Friday, November 02, 2012

Does the Drone War Disqualify Obama?

Just a few thoughts on voting, Obama and the Drone War. There has been a cottage industry in articles arguing that liberals and progressives should refuse to vote Obama due to his continuation and extension of the most egregious abuses of the War of Terror. These articles mostly come from conservatives (Conor Friedersdorf), libertarians (Glenn Greenwald) or the far left (Freddie DeBoer). More mainstream liberals like Jonathan Chait and Andrew Sullivan condemn his civil liberties record, but are quite positive about his presidency. There's been a lot of discussion in my Facebook stream on this point too.

It's a legitimate question and it should be a troubling one for progressives who hoped that Obama would usher in a more reasonable foreign policy. Still after the Bush-Gore-Nader debacle, I've generally viewed voting in national elections as a strategic act. There are too many important issues at stake to tolerate protest votes. As ugly as the drone war is, it isn't the only issue in the election. I like having a social safety net and Romney/Ryan look poised to shred it. I like Obamacare and would like to see it extended, not killed off.

From my perspective, Obama is superior to Romney on virtually every issue. Romney hasn't given many details on what his foreign policy would look like, but it seems unlikely that he would be any better on civil liberties. Executive power seems to ratchet in one direction absent any checks or balances from Congress or the courts. Plus Romney is generally more hawkish than Obama and is surrounded by the neo-con establishment in exile. War with Iran would be a lot worse than targeted drone strikes (bad as they are).

It also has to be said that Obama's foreign policy is a big climbdown from the unmitigated disaster of the Bush years. Obama ended torture and is winding down the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations. Whatever you might think of Libya it was at least a limited affair. It's no surprise either that the sticky issue has to do with foreign policy. For decades U.S. foreign policy has been something of a bipartisan train wreck of almost constant overseas military presence and actions. There is virtually no constituency in Washington for a more peaceful or restrained foreign policy and domestic policy is typically more important to voters. Those affected by our bad policies can't vote.

Still, Obama's critics typically frame the question as a moral one: when has a president you generally agree with done something so bad that you cannot in good conscience pull the lever?

The internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII is a horrible stain on our history. Should we have therefore dumped FDR in 1944? Does that blemish erase the good that was done by the New Deal? Martin Luther King Jr. was famously agnostic about the Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential race, saying that both parties were bad on civil rights, although he did say he voted for JFK in 1960 and would have publicly endorsed him in 1964 had he lived.

I do sympathize with those who want to wash their hands of the whole thing. The U.S. establishment has decided that we will wage endless war, but always in other peoples backyards. Deaths of innocents seem to have little weight in the DC calculus. Here in Nicaragua we can see that people are still feeling the consequences of that consensus twenty years after the Contra War. It's a hard question and a personal one, obviously, so here are a few thoughts:

  1. Withholding a vote in a presidential election may feel right but it is unlikely to actually fix the problem. Elections are blunt instruments.
  2. Much better to participate in a citizen movement that works strategically to change public opinion and policy. There are many groups that are working toward this end and they could use our support. Voting is a lagging indicator of social change, real change starts at the grassroots.
  3. The President is not the only branch of government, he just gets more press coverage. Congress needs to step up to the plate and push back against executive overreach. That's the reason why the Constitution has checks and balances.
For me that adds up to a vote for Obama, which I mailed off several weeks ago. And a commitment to be a pest on foreign policy for the next four years. Vote strategically, act locally.

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