The Partisan Temptation

US foreign policy and presidential politics

by , April 27, 2011

It always seems like the presidential horse race starts earlier than in the previous election season: no sooner is our quadrennial agony over then the pundits start placing their bets on a fresh crop of colts, calculating the odds. This sped-up process is due to the degeneration of our old Republic into an Empire in everything but name: with the onset of empire, and the concomitant [.pdf] expansion of presidential power, the question of who sits in the Oval Office is the essential political question.

This is especially true in the realm of foreign policy, where the President’s role as commander-in-chief takes on immense importance: ever since Congress ceded its war-making power to Harry Truman, who sent US troops to Korea without bothering to ask Congress, the President has functioned as a one-man arbiter of when we go to war and when we don’t. Our descent into Caesarism proceeded from that point, and with astounding speed. The task of the contemporary anti-interventionist movement is to arrest that institutional drift and roll it back to the original intent of the Founders, who feared and hated militarism and the autocratic politics that go with it.

So how do we do it? What, as Lenin asked, is to be done?

The seemingly logical answer is that we run, or get behind, a presidential candidate of our own, one who will restore the Constitution and put the White House in its proper place. Yet this project presents us with some pretty formidable obstacles, not the least of which are the institutional and legal impediments to any such restoration.

One major roadblock on the road to peace is the essentially contradictory nature of such an effort. The office of the presidency has become so bloated, so invested with symbolic meaning and legal authority, that no one who wins it is likely to curtail its power. Indeed, given human nature, we have every reason to expect precisely the opposite: upon taking office, any and all presidents have so far sought to increase, rather than diminish, that power, to expand presidential prerogatives as far as the public and the current law of the land finds tolerable. As a corollary to the old dictum that no ruling class has ever given up its power voluntarily we can add that no chief executive of the United States – or any other nation on earth – has curtailed his own authority.

Yes, but – I can hear the skeptics even before I’ve finished making my argument – our candidate will be different. Our candidate – fill in the blank with whatever name occurs to you – will carry out the mandate of the voters, and we’ll be on our way to a more peaceful world shortly.

I have my doubts, and not just due to my view of human nature: for, given that we’ve elected a pro-peace candidate to the highest office in the land, what would our champion have to do in order to implement his or her program? In the course of this struggle, quite naturally he or she would encounter the paradox of power: that any attempt to steer the ship of state in a radically different direction necessarily requires that the Captain is absolutely in charge. “Oh, we’re only doing this in order to achieve this-or-that immediate objective,” the President and his supporters will invariably assert over the objections of their disappointed followers. “Don’t worry, eventually we’ll return to our original path and program. We have to do this in order to win in the long run. You have to be practical!”

Speaking of disappointed followers: this precise pattern has been replicated to a tee by the Obama administration, which has split its most fervent supporters by escalating the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, bombing Libya, and going beyond even its predecessors in asserting and defending (in court) the imperial prerogatives of the presidency. Anyone surprised by this has to be comatose: after all, the leitmotif of the Obama campaign, then and now, has been a self-proclaimed and prideful pragmatism, i.e. opposition to principled politics as such. Especially when it comes to the question of war and peace, this gives the Obama-ites maximum flexibility in the policy realm, and an advantage in making the political argument that Democrats – because of their identity as the Mommy Party – have to “overcome” their recent history of opposition to Republican wars before the electorate trusts them enough to hand them the keys to the White House.

And now that they have those keys, however temporarily, the Democrats in power have acted just like their Republican predecessors: indeed, in some horrific alternate universe, where third term President George W. Bush is in charge of US foreign policy, it is hard to imagine what Dubya is doing differently.

Having risen from the junior ranks of the Senate to the dizzying heights of the Imperial Presidency in large part due to Americans’ war-weariness, Barack Obama has taken them into fresh conflicts, with the promise – or, rather, threat – of more to come. How did this happen – and how is the administration getting away with it?

The answer, I believe, is in the polls, and specifically a recent Public Policy poll:

“Our most recent national poll found that only 27% of Americans supported the military intervention in Libya to 40% who were opposed and 33% who had no opinion. Democrats only narrowly stand behind the President in supporting the action in Libya, 31/28. Meanwhile Republicans (21/51) and independents (29/42) are considerably more unified in their opposition.”

The good news is that Americans, in their majority, are following their natural “isolationist” impulses and that a good number of Democrats are rebelling against their own leadership. The bad news comes when we discover:

“Libya doesn’t seem likely to be a big vote shifter next year- 52% of voters say it won’t make a difference in their decision on whether to support Obama for reelection or not. But for the voters who do say it could be a game change it’s a negative- 31% say what’s going on in Libya right now make them less likely to vote for Obama compared to only 17% who say it makes them more likely to vote for him.”

To begin with, the idea that the Libyan intervention can be isolated as a discrete event, and voters’ reaction to it accurately gauged, is a scientistic conceit. Asked their opinion about our latest Middle East meddling, the context of the question has to be accounted for when considering the responses. The real meaning of these poll numbers is that, on top of all the other ways in which this administration has escalated US military action throughout the world, this latest intervention makes 31 percent less likely to vote for Obama. Not good for the Obama-ites, but not a disaster, either. Now let’s go deeper into the results:

In terms of ideology, 19 percent of those who consider themselves “very liberal” support Obama’s Libyan adventure, and the number goes way up to 42 percent when we’re talking about those who see themselves as “somewhat liberal.” 32 percent of self-described “moderates” support the President’s Libya policy, and the numbers go down when we get into the conservative zone: the conservative somewhats and the Tea Party types are17 percent and 18 percent respectively. 49 percent of “very liberal” voters are opposed to the Libyan intervention, but a mere 14 percent say Obama’s latest foreign policy move makes them less likely to vote for him. So he gets to keep his base intact – yes, even after all those drone strikes, the incursion into Pakistan, and now Libya.

Look at the astonishing turnabout made by the activist core of the Democratic party on foreign policy matters: even among the “very liberal” types, nearly 20 percent support the policy and 32 percent are “not sure.” In a swathe of the population that filled the streets with picket signs proclaiming “Bush Lied, People Died!”, this is an about-face that pays tribute to the hypnotic power of partisan politics, and specifically to the distorting influence of our two-party system on the foreign policy debate.

As long as our politics are defined in terms of Team Blue and Team Red, and these arrangements are encoded in law, real change of any sort, never mind a radical reversal of our interventionist foreign policy, is next to impossible. The reason is that the “pragmatists” in the two parties can always count on their respective bases to back them no matter what they do – that, at least, has been the case up until now, and this operating principle extends especially when we get to foreign policy.

The liberal base of the Democratic party has basically made a pact with the Devil in which they agree to forget about all those foreigners being killed overseas, in return for a package of goodies on the home front: and the Obama-ites have certainly gone out of their way to reward their loyalists. The liberals have, in short, sold out, quite literally – and at a very reduced price. Instead of single-payer health care they got a corporate bailout and more money in the pockets of the President’s favorite crony-capitalists, but hey, what the heck, let’s get practical. It takes lots of crony capitalist money to run a presidential campaign. And besides that, what if the Republicans get back in power – do you want that?

This argument always wins the day in “progressive” circles, no matter how committed to non-interventionism some of these folks may be, in theory: it works like a charm every time.

And the reason it works is because these antiwar progressives have nowhere else to go. They can stay home on election day, but in the end most of these people are too politicized to stand on the sidelines. When push comes to shove, they’ll come out for their guy – if only because of the quite rational fear of what the Other Guy will do once he gets in office.

The same electoral calculus operates in an identical manner on the right, where a full 65 percent of those who see themselves as “very conservative” oppose US intervention in Libya. Yet how many of these very same folks voted for Senator John McCain, who is fresh back from Libya proclaiming his undying support for the rebels and demanding we go in guns blazing? Many of these same people have suddenly decided they are sick and tired of the war in Afghanistan, and are wondering when we’re going to be on our way out of that mess – and yet they cheered Bush on when he launched these disastrous wars, and demonized anyone who opposed the policy as a “pro-terrorist.”

This system that favors warfare has succeeded because it has created a war at home, too: a low-level war, one that doesn’t very often erupt in violence, but a war just the same in the sense that an athletic event pitting two teams against each other is a simulation of two armies locked in combat. This trend has accelerated, of late, to the point where everyone is bemoaning the grave lack of “civility” in the national discourse, and this growing gulf between the two teams has given rise to radical shifts in public opinion on foreign policy issues in particular.

If Team Red is fighting a war overseas, then it’s their war, they own it, and it’s okay for Team Blue to oppose it, at least after the usual rally-‘round-the-President effect has worn off. However, if Team Blue is in power – as it is today – then suddenly the base moves into the interventionist camp. Principles they once held dear and proclaimed at the top of their lungs are suddenly inoperative, as if a switch has been pulled: this is true for many, even most, on occasion – but not all.

This is where there are signs of hope for the anti-interventionist movement. For a certain percentage of those who protested against the wars of the previous administration are so lacking in team spirit that they are willing to break with the rest over an issue they consider vitally important. As successive Presidents involve us in multiple interventions, and the tide of public opinion goes this way and that, these stalwarts slowly accumulate their numbers, which are increased due to their own independent nonpartisan efforts.

In short, having started out as opponents of “Bush’s war,” or “Obama’s war,” these types wind up opposing wars of aggression as a matter of principle. The empty promises of the “pragmatic” politicians don’t interest them: indeed, they find the whole charade offensive.

Which brings me to the moral of this story, and it is this: put not your trust in partisan politics. There is no hope there, at least not under the present two-party system. Rome, in the era of its prolonged decline, had two great political parties, the patricians and the plebeians, or, in the Byzantine version, the Greens and the Blues, which were closely associated with teams of chariot racers. The two-party system, in and of itself, is a symptom of decadence: it represents the degeneration of politics from a civic duty into an entertainment. Donald Trump’s candidacy underscores how relevant this analysis is to our present day condition.

As we are pulled, under protest, into the presidential election season, it is essential to keep this lesson in mind. Yes, we can and must win at the ballot box, but those efforts can only take us so far – and, at this point, that isn’t very far. With the political system rigged the way it is, the ability of the two major parties to retain the support of their respective bases – barring some radical rupture in the fabric of society itself – is a nearly insuperable obstacle. We cannot and will not reverse America’s slide into Caesarism in the next election, or the one after that: we must take the long view. That means taking advantage of political conditions to educate and retain the loyalty of those who resist the partisan temptation.

That’s what we’re doing here at Antiwar.com – and we’ve been doing it since 1995. Consistently, vocally, and without partisan favor. The only road forward is building a peace movement independent of the two parties – and, I might add, even more than a little contemptuous of them. By all means, become politically active for the candidates of your choice – but don’t be fooled into thinking that this can fundamentally change the way foreign policy is conducted in Washington. That will take a much more sustained and grueling struggle.

Read more by Justin Raimondo