Saturday, October 8, 2016

Nil to Hill: Are Anti-Imperialists Right to Risk a Trump Presidency?


by Caleb S. Rossiter*

There are certain, rare moments in the history of American presidential elections when the paradigms of the traditional parties just don’t adapt to a shift in public opinion on a key value fast enough.  For example, in 1856 and 1968 the “lesser of two evils” argument became unacceptable to a significant number of voters. 

In 1856 many voters abandoned the vaguely anti-slavery Whigs for the new, fiercely anti-slavery Republican party, splitting the opposition to the pro-slavery Democrats.  In 1968, anti-war activists decided to “Dump the Hump” because Democrat Hubert Humphrey would not endorse withdrawal from Viet Nam.  The short-term result in both cases was victory for the decidedly greater of two evils.  The long-term result, though, was a new or reformed party based on a principle that eventually brought progress to our country, and even the world. 

The election of 2016 appears to be shaping up as such a moment for Americans who reject the neo-imperial role we have played since taking on the mantle of the collapsing European powers in the aftermath of World War II.  That is because more and more voters are seeing that what the Pentagon calls the Long War -- America’s permanent war for control of the Muslim world -- has spiraled out of control since it became the core of our foreign policy after the end of the Cold War in 1991.   

Under the first George Bush and Bill Clinton the Long War led us to continue our Cold War program of backing dozens of what Franklin Roosevelt once called “our bastards” -- nasty Middle Eastern and North African regimes who cooperate with our expeditionary military forces, spies, and businesses.  Then, when Al-Qaeda brought the war home to us on 9/11, the second George Bush invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq.  Fifteen years later, or three times the length of our victory in World War II, Barack Obama is still bombing six countries, sometimes in a single day: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. 

Not only has the permanent war devastated the people of the Middle East and North Africa, but it has also damaged, rather than strengthened, our security and personal freedom and that of our European allies.  Until we accept that we must stop enforcing our choice of regimes on other countries, our daily fare will continue to be terrorism at home, flows of refugees, global instability and slower economic growth abroad, and the waste of our tax dollars and the lives and skills of our young adults on unwinnable military missions.  

The only solution to the permanent war is to renounce American exceptionalism and stop backing repressive regimes from Bahrain to Uganda, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, in return for their support for our military and covert operations and corporate interests.  However, this policy of declaring victory and bringing our troops and spies home and letting our businesses fend for themselves on the world stage is one that Hillary Clinton, solidly fixed within our imperial paradigm, cannot abide.  As a result, many anti-imperialists feel they must say “Nil to Hill,” even though that risks putting Donald Trump in the White House. 
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Precedents: 1856 and 1968

The election of 1856 offers a dramatic example of a shift in opinion that overthrew an existing major party.  The refusal by Whig leaders to reject slavery drove many in their party to leave in 1854 and form a new party, the Republicans.  The pro-slavery Democrats won the presidency in 1856 because the old Whig vote was split between the American Party, which ran former Whig president Millard Fillmore, and the Republicans, who ran anti-slavery explorer John Fremont.  By 1860, though, the Republicans were able to vote in a liberator, Abraham Lincoln.  As a result, American lurched in the needed direction of offering black Americans at least a chance at achieving their human rights. 

In 1968 anti-war activists in the Democratic Party refused to support Vice President Hubert Humphrey, because he endorsed President Lyndon Johnson’s policy of fighting on in Viet Nam until the nationalists negotiated a settlement that would leave part of the country under a Western-backed government.  Johnson tried to sweeten the pot for Humphrey by pausing the bombing of North Viet Nam, but that step was, of course, tied to the failed policy of forcing the nationalists to negotiate something they could not accept – a divided country.

Anti-imperialist activists outside the Democratic Party, such as the Mobilization Against the War and the Students for a Democratic Society, had even more reason to “Dump the Hump.”  They opposed not just the invasion and slaughter in Viet Nam, but also the neo-imperial role the United States had played since President Truman made the fateful decision in 1945 -- perhaps one President Roosevelt might have opposed, had he lived -- to take up the mantle of the epic crime of colonialism from the weakened Europeans.  Truman sent the recently-freed French back to re-enslave Indochina, the Dutch back to re-enslave Indonesia, and the British back to re-enslave Burma and Malaya.  

When these blatant bids for re-colonization failed, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson funded throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America a neo-imperial network of “friendly” dictators allied with the United States and helpful to its military and commercial projects.  They even backed the last imperial power, Portugal, in its brutal war to retain its three African colonies, in order to maintain access to Portugal’s NATO air bases.  The claimed reason for maintaining the American network was to forestall advances by the Soviet Union, but when that country dissolved in 1991, the network lived on, as it does today.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy said when asked by a colleague about a crisis in the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese Army in 1961: “Viet Nam?  We’ve got 20 Viet Nams a day to handle.”  Anti-Humphrey protestors chanted “the whole world’s watching” on live television during the Democratic convention in 1968 as Chicago’s police attacked them, and what many of them wanted the whole world to see was that the problem was not just one of Bobby’s many wars, but the neo-imperialist paradigm that required them.  To them, to recall a famous distinction from that era, Viet Nam was not the “mistake” that Cold War liberals called it, but rather an unavoidable consequence of the neo-imperial paradigm.   

The logic of the anti-Humphrey effort was obvious: no self-respecting anti-war movement can vote for the warrior.  It may well have led to Nixon’s election -- although that result was less clear than in 1856, since the 1968 election was complicated by segregationist Democrat and self-appointed spokesman for the little man George Wallace, who won the Confederacy’s electoral votes and 12 percent of the popular vote, and harmed both major candidates in different ways in different states. 

The pay-off to “Dump the Hump” came four years later, when the Democratic Party became an anti-war party and nominated George McGovern.  While McGovern lost, his affirmation of the Viet Nam Syndrome created a norm that helped constrain direct military intervention by Ford, Carter, and Reagan.  Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in Zaire, Somalia, Angola, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Guatemala and a dozen other U.S.-backed conflicts from 1975 to 1988, but the toll would have been in the millions had our political calculus permitted the direct combat role we played in Viet Nam.

There were hints of a rejection of the imperial paradigm in 2000, when some progressive voters refused to back Al Gore, despite agreeing that he was clearly the lesser of two evils.  These voters objected to his foreign policy record as a Democratic Leadership Council “Dixie” who had sabotaged efforts to block the MX missile and end civil wars in Central America, and were part of the six percent of voters who backed Green Party anti-interventionist Ralph Nader, and may well have elected George W. Bush.  

The left-leaning Nation magazine recognized Nader’s foreign policy appeal, but asked its readers not to respond to it if they lived in swing states.  The Nation’s advice was practical, since many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive if it had been followed.  Al Gore would certainly have attacked Afghanistan but probably not prosecuted the illogical war in Iraq.
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Rodham Clinton, the Unacceptable Imperialist

Now in 2016 the electorate faces a choice between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump.  There are two credible minor party candidates, the Libertarians’ Gary Johnson, a fiscally conservative and socially liberal former Republican governor of New Mexico, and the Greens’ Jill Stein, a retired doctor with an admirable record of fighting toxic emissions (and a dubious one of hysteria over a non-toxic one, carbon dioxide).  

Running mate William Weld, also a thoughtful former Republican governor, will raise Johnson’s total vote.  Stein’s running mate, Ajamu Baraka, is a lively and trenchant critic of racial and class power , but he will probably reduce her total vote with his bizarre conspiracy theories.  No matter: neither minor party can win, or even become power brokers for their policies, because they will not be able to take electoral votes in any state and throw the election into the House of Representatives.

By refusing to back Clinton, anti-imperialists will be responsible for electing Trump.  On foreign policy, there is probably little added danger of doing so, even in the short term.  Trump is an unknown, an unguided missile with little understanding, interest, or theme in international affairs.  Clinton, though, is a proven imperialist with a dangerous, LBJ-style political bent for showing that her party can be as tough as Republicans.  She is a guarantee that the Long War will continue, leaving us trapped in a cycle of military support for repressive regimes that makes us the target for the terrorism of their radical Islamist opponents, leading to even more war and additional reaction from the Caliphate. 

On a few important domestic policies, such as judicial choices and affirmative action, the potential domestic consequences of a Trump presidency to many Americans, particularly poor people and people of color, horrify most anti-imperialists. That, though, may be the price of progress, as it was in 1856 and 1968.  

Sometimes the big issue requires temporary losses on the smaller ones, and the biggest issue of all is not what America can do for its own people, but what it is doing to people in other countries as the enforcer of a network of repression and war (Pace, JFK’s speechwriters).  America’s major parties need to adjust at some point to the reality that a sizeable share of the electorate simply won’t support empire.  2016 may prove to be that time.
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* Former congressional staffer Caleb S. Rossiter is the director of the American Exceptionalism Media Project and the author of “The Chimes of Freedom Flashing: A Personal History of the Viet Nam Anti-War Movement and the 1960’s” (1996) and “The Turkey and the Eagle: The Struggle for America’s Global Role” (2011).




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