Jumping Off the Bandwagon

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Mike Davis assesses the options for the left in the coming US elections.

Is the Pentagon too small, the war on terrorism too meek, and the Department of Homeland Security too underfunded?

John Kerry thinks so. In recent days he has repeatedly attacked the Bush administration for failing to put sufficient troops in the field or move aggressively enough against Al Qaida and North Korea.

If elected, he promises to dramatically enlarge the army by 40,000 soldiers and increase spending on domestic anti-terrorism. He pledges to streamline and multilateralise the war on terrorism (he calls it 'progressive internationalism') with tougher stances towards erstwhile allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

While refusing, so far, to commit himself to concrete steps for reducing the US profile in Iraq, he has specifically endorsed Sharon's 'right' to brutally wall off the West Bank and reiterated traditional Democratic support for ultra-Zionism. He was also the co-sponsor of the recently passed 'Syrian Accountability Act', which provides legitimation for future US aggression against Damascus.

Hardly the platform of a 'peace' candidate. Indeed, having already banked the Democratic nomination, the Kerry campaign no longer needs to woo anti-war Dean and Kucinich supporters. The rebellion on the party's left is over. The mantra now is 'electability', and Kerry has turned rightwards to charm conservative Democrats, independents and dissident Republicans.

Chief foreign policy adviser to the senator from Massachusetts is Rand Beers, formerly George W Bush's chief adviser on counter-terrorism. Beers reportedly deserted the White House because he felt that the neo-conservative obsession with Iraq was diverting attention from Afghanistan, North Korea and Colombia. (He was one of the architects, during the Clinton years, of 'Plan Colombia' - the US's largely clandestine intervention in the Andean country's civil war.)

A Kerry administration, in the vision of Beers (as well as top Democratic national security gurus like Richard Holbrooke and Sandy Berger), would return the US and Europe to the Middle Earth of the Clinton years, when 'normal imperialism' prevailed and smiling allies bombed and invaded in unison.

Although Democrats, like AFL-CIO political chair Gerald McEntee, are hyping next November as 'the most important election in our lifetime', it is clear that what will be on offer are merely modest amendments, not authentic alternatives to the core Bush agenda.

Withdrawal from Iraq is not a Kerry plank, nor is the repeal of the Orwellian Patriot Act. Kerry voted for both and proposes only 'kinder, gentler' versions of what Rumsfeld and Ashcroft have wrought. (We won't nuke Paris after all.)

Indeed, as both the Economist and the Financial Times have noted recently, there is now substantive 'continuity' between Republican and Democratic foreign policies. On the domestic front, Kerry has explicitly reaffirmed his commitment to the 'third way' exemplified by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and declared, 'I really pride myself on being pro-business.'

'Anybody but Bush' thus translates into a restoration of the status quo ante and a historic, self inflicted defeat for the anti-war forces now corralled inside the Democratic Party.

This is why braver and more clear-sighted elements of the American left are rallying behind Ralph Nader's 'independent citizen' candidacy. Nader, as his website explains, is running to 'mobilise citizens behind an issues agenda... and to take our democracy back from the corporate interests that dominate both parties'.

To the surprise of most pundits, two recent polls by the Associated Press and the New York Times show Nader's seemingly quixotic campaign garnering the support of 6 to 7 percent of the electorate. (In 2000 Nader won about 5 percent of the vote in states where he was on the ballot.)

To the advocates of a popular front around Kerry (which includes the editors of the Nation, MoveOn.org, and most of the 'celebrity' left), Nader's audacity is sheer treason. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times recently reported, 'to many Democrats, Nader represents an election-stealing evil just this side of the Antichrist.'

Conversely, Peter Camejo, the recent Green Party candidate for governor in California and one of the party's most respected spokespeople, has applauded Nader's candidacy as 'the best thing he has done in his life'.

Nader, to be sure, is not Eugene Debs (the beloved presidential candidate of the old American socialist movement) or even Jesse Jackson, vintage 1984. Though surprisingly strong on labour issues during his 2000 campaign, Nader lacks street credentials in the inner cities and attracts little black or Latino support.

Still, Camejo and others argue, Nader remains the most celebrated champion of independent, anti-corporate politics. And his campaign offers the best available platform for contesting the neoliberal Democratic resurgence that is addling the brains and confiscating the energy of so much of the liberal left.

But the ultimate impact of the Nader campaign will depend on the critical scope of his platform as well as his ability to win the endorsement of the national Green Party convention in June. 'While it is crucial to defend Nader's right to run,' one leading socialist activist told me the other day, 'the verdict is still out whether he will mount a left wing campaign or not.' Likewise, it is unclear whether the Greens, despite the heroic efforts of Camejo and others, will again mobilise behind Nader.

As always, in the shadow of the monolithic US two-party system, the future of an independent US left hangs in suspense.


Mike Davis is the author of Late Victorian Holocausts and Dead Cities