Was a Vote for Bush a Vote for War?

by Joe Auciello


Leading up to the 2004 presidential election, some prominent figures on the left, including Tariq Ali, author of  the book Bush in Babylon and an editor of the magazine New Left Review, urged the defeat of George Bush. Ali’s voice was a surprising addition to the Anybody But Bush crowd. As a revolutionary socialist, Ali would have been expected to call for a political break from the Republicans and Democrats and in favor of an independent, working-class perspective.

But Ali and other left-wing opponents of President Bush’s election campaign argued that a vote for Bush would be seen throughout the world, especially by Arab nations, as a vote for the U.S.-led war in Iraq. According to this argument, a second Bush term would signal that millions of Americans, for the first time, declared themselves in favor of the Iraq war, in favor of attacking a country that had not and could not attack the United States. It would mean that most Americans, from workers to “soccer Moms,” supported a bloody, brutal imperialist conquest and occupation.

In an October radio interview, Ali explained, “This is what I constantly say when I’m in  this country to people on the left: Look, you have a responsibility to the rest of the world as well. This is no time to fool around. Do not mimic the imperial rulers of your country and think exclusively about yourselves and your own interests, whatever these may be. Just look at the situation globally and ask yourselves this: How would a defeat for George W. Bush be seen in the rest of the world? I am 100% confident…this defeat would be seen as a victory…To say that Bush shouldn’t be defeated is to underestimate the loss of Iraqi lives and the loss of American lives in this conflict…You have to vote against Bush, which means behaving politically and maturely and voting for Kerry.” (The entire interview is available on-line in audio here.)

It is hard to imagine a younger Tariq Ali, leader of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in Britain, urging a vote for Democratic presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey in 1968 or for George McGovern in 1972 on the grounds that a Democratic electoral victory would have been seen by Vietnam and the rest of the world as a victory for the Vietnamese revolution. Instead, Ali called for “Struggle against imperialism abroad, struggle against capitalism at home” (“The Extra-Parliamentary Opposition,” in Tariq Ali, ed., The New Revolutionaries, William Morrow & Co., Inc.: New York, 1969).

Another prominent Anybody But Bush supporter, feminist columnist Katha Pollitt, agreed with Tariq Ali’s opinion that a vote for Bush meant a vote for war. In an article entitled “Mourn,” she lamented Kerry’s defeat and suggested, “Maybe this time the voters chose what they actually want: Nationalism, pre-emptive war…” (The Nation, November 22, 2004).

In this view, the 2004 election was an implicit, if not overt, referendum on the Iraq war. Bush’s victory, then, would be a mandate for continued hostilities. But is this belief, in fact, true? There is good reason to think it is not.

First, it is necessary to state the obvious. In this election, voters were given no real choice. Both George Bush and his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, supported the war. Only minor, marginal candidates called for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Kerry, who said, “I voted for it the first time before I voted against it,” pledged to fight a better war by fighting a bigger one. He promised to send more U.S. soldiers to Iraq and to draw in more support from U.S. allies in Western Europe. Kerry’s promises for a better war were hardly inspirational. The logic of “Don’t change horses in midstream” favored the Republican president.

So, with no real choice, voters merely expressed a preference. They pulled the lever for the genial, friendly-appearing Republican with the folksy drawl rather than the stiff Boston Brahman Democrat with the elite accent. The election was never about policy or program because there were no fundamental differences. It was no mandate.

According to an Associated Press poll of voters, only 8% of Bush supporters said the Iraq war was the crucial factor in their decision. More important was the element of fear: 32% cited “terrorism” as their reason for voting for Bush. Against all the evidence, the Republicans succeeded in linking the September 11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon to Saddam Hussein, therefore justifying the invasion of Iraq. The Republicans also succeeded in smearing their Democratic opponents as “soft” and “weak” on defense when, in fact, the Democrats are no less of a war party than the Republicans.

The election of George W. Bush also represented the triumph of bipartisan propaganda. It meant the renewed success of the old lie, the one that millions wish to believe—that America in the world at large is a force for peace and democracy. Despite the reality, a small majority of Americans view the war in Iraq as a noble struggle for a virtuous cause, that is, the military removal of a hated dictator, Saddam Hussein, so that Iraqis can enjoy the gift of freedom. But with that “mission accomplished,” it becomes more difficult every day for America’s ruling class to justify continued occupation of Iraq, especially as American casualties mount with more than eight thousand wounded and more than eleven hundred dead.

Katha Pollitt, in her Nation column, suggested that lack of popular protest against the Abu Ghraib prison tortures indicated support for Bush and the Iraq war. “Did I miss the demonstrations, the sit-ins, the teach-ins, the lying down in traffic by swing voters and nonvoters to force the Bush Administration to account for this outrageous crime against humanity?”

But the question must be asked: Did Americans vote for more war? Did Americans demand that more 500-pound bombs rain down on Iraqi neighborhoods? Were the Republicans able to organize mass demonstrations to demand more C-130 gunships, more troop increases, and longer troop rotations? Are Americans lying down in traffic and sitting-in for the renewal of the draft?

No, not at all. Parades do not celebrate America as an imperial bully. Protests do not demand American control of Middle East oil. Public opinion does not cry for two, three many wars in Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

Public opinion does favor better protection and safety for U.S. soldiers. The army’s armored vehicles are vulnerable to land mines, so in towns throughout the country, people are raising money to supply armor for the underside of those vehicles. The intention is not to kill more Iraqis but to save more Americans.

The “Support our troops” sentiment is not a hardened “Support our war” sentiment. Town councils vote to pay the salary differentials to wives whose husbands are stationed in Iraq. Parades welcome returning veterans and plaques and statues memorialize those who have died. Americans express empathy for the soldiers, not sympathy for the war.

The 2004 presidential election shows that the ideology of the American people is still the ideology of its ruling class. But American security will not be gained by taking away Iraqi self-determination. American workers have no objective interest in fighting Iraqi workers. The tears of Iraqi mothers will not bring smiles to American mothers. Safety and security requires that the war must end so that American soldiers, mostly young men and women, can return home.

The election was no mandate for war. The sea of red states that covered America was no cry for an ocean of blood to drown Iraq. Rather, the votes for Bush and Kerry, each in their own way, were confused statements of solidarity for the soldiers, for the nation’s sons and daughters, neighbors and friends.

The political climate is not hostile to the left. Popular protest is still necessary and possible. The election of George Bush shows that socialists and the antiwar movement bear a huge responsibility to organize, expose the falsehoods, and tell the American people the truth about the war in Iraq.

In 1972, every state but one voted for Republican president Richard Nixon. A few months later, on Inauguration Day, one hundred thousand people turned out in protest. The peace movement now must do no less. The peace vigils and demonstrations must continue. A large antiwar minority can win over the American people and become a significant majority. Political consciousness will grow; the radicalization will deepen. Eventually, perhaps not too far off, some of the Republican voters of today (and some Democrat voters too) will become the revolutionary activists of tomorrow.