By Taylor Marvin
At Salon, Matt Stoller has a deliberately provocative piece outlining what he calls “the progressive case against Obama”. Stoller lists the left’s arguments with the Obama presidency, and concludes that voters who don’t live in swing states and have little influence on the presidential election should support a third party protest vote. In Stoller’s eyes this act of liberal protest is important, because “saying no to evil in 2012 will help us understand who is willing to say no to evil when it really matters.” I won’t get into the practical arguments against encouraging progressives to support alternative candidates, even with Stoller’s unconvincing cavet that only those outside of swing states throw away their vote. But third parties’ policies beyond a few pet issues are generally myopically idealistic, at best. While this doesn’t dismiss the very real problems with the common Democratic and Republican policy consensus, it makes them difficult to take seriously.
Stoller’s criticism of the Obama presidency’s “evil” focuses on domestic policy; the only foreign policy issue Stoller mentions is the counter-terrorism drone campaign. But Stoller’s lucky to not highlight foreign policy, because the foreign policy platform of the left’s leading alternative to the Democratic Party is an incoherent confusion. I’m talking, of course, about the Green Party.
The Green Party’s platform is problematic for numerous reasons, but perhaps worse is the insistence on reducing complex problems down to idealized solutions with a clear delineation between good and evil. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t allow for such idealism or moral clarity. Notably, the Green Party foreign policy platform endorses the UN’s right to “intervene in a nation-state engaged in genocidal acts or in its persistent violation and denial of the human rights of an ethnic or religious group within its boundaries, and the right to protect the victims of such acts.” But five items down, the platform rejects the US’ right to “pre-emptive invasion of another country on the grounds that the other country harbors, trains, equips and funds a terrorist cell.” See the problem here? Foreign military intervention motivated by the desire to remove or coerce a terrorist-supporting regime is no different from military intervention to prevent genocide. For all the ideological space between the typically liberal defenders of the Responsibility to Protect and conservatives in favor of a hawkish anti-terrorism agenda, military interventions are risky and costly strategies whatever the motivation. Genocides and human rights violations are often popular with non-targeted social groups and regime supporters; these groups are likely to violently resist a outsider’s attempt to remove their privileges. As Erica Chenoweth noted today, contrary to common knowledge genocides most often take place within civil wars. Halting the genocide means taking a side in an ongoing civil war and terminating the conflict by winning it, likely not what the Green Party’s supporters have in mind. When outsiders have successfully halted genocide it typically requires an extensive ground invasion, like in World War II or the 1978 Cambodian-Vietnamese War. Interestingly in spite of its insistance that the US has a right, through the UN, to invade human rights abusing states, the document does not mention the word “Syria”. (Or course, the Republican platform’s mild call for a “transition” to a post-Assad government is just as bad.)
The Green Party’s inability to recognize that the ideals of a “just war” to prevent genocide do not magic away the intractable problems of escalation and post-conflict governance is a major blind spot, and one that severely damages their purported non-interventionist credibility. As analyst Andrew Exum noted when discussing liberal interventionist calls for intervention in Syria, “when it comes to post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction, most liberal interventionists are no better than most neoconservatives.” It’s possible to argue that the horrors of genocide and massive human rights violation warrant risky and violent military actions to stop them. But insisting on the meaningless distinction that military intervention is right when targeting human rights violators and wrong when tackling terrorism sponsors is no attempt to engage this difficult argument.
Like the youthfully naive supporters of the Kony 2012 movement, Green’s idealism appears to blind them to the violent realities of the foreign interventions they do support. The Green Party platform calls for phasing out the majority of US military bases abroad, without recognizing that it is the US’ extensive network of overseas bases that allow it to quickly project military power — without these bases, you can’t fight wars to halt genocide.
Similarly, the platform’s nuclear policy is misinformed at best. Aside from calling for abolishing all US nuclear weapons, the Green Party calls for a US declaration of a no-first-use policy without recognizing that countries that do have a stated no-first-use policy — China, India, and North Korea — all lack robust second strike capability: no-first-use isn’t a statement of morality, but rather a purely diplomatic first-strike deterrence. The Greens also call for the US to “dismantle all nuclear warheads from their missiles”. This presumably requires phasing out ballistic missile submarines, which are by far the most stabilizing leg of the nuclear triad. Arms control advocates should instead be calling for greater reliance on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and phasing out land-based ones: the Green Party has it precisely opposite.
There are parts of the domestic policy platform that have real appeal: the US should reduce its defense expenditures, and should end the Cuban embargo. But the Green Party, like other third parties, demolishes its appeal with a confused mix of ill-researched foreign policy prescriptions. Worst of all is the platform’s flirtation with 9/11 trutherism: the domestic security section begins with a call for a “complete, thorough, impartial, and independent investigation of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, including the role of the administration of George W, Bush, various US based corporations and interests, and other nations and third parties.” Shame aside, pandering to conspiracy theorist dilutes the credibility of the Greens’ good ideas.
Even if there’s so much wrong with the Green Party’s foreign policy, are they worth a protest vote? The problem is that a protest vote is a single signal. It’s difficult for protest voters to only endorse only part of a third party’s platform, because this nuance is often lost when the signal reaches policymakers. Conor Friedersdorf may see his vote for Gary Johnson as a protest against the drone war and intervention in Libya, but it’s also a signal that his vote supports disastrous economic policy and mass unemployment. Friedersdorf may argue that Johnson’s economic libertarianism doesn’t matter, because, unlike foreign policy, domestic policy is largely dictated by Congress, not the president. But these two arenas aren’t so easily separable: if the protest of a protest vote means anything at all, it’s the signal that matters. Friedersdorf’s recognition of this signal is explicit in a followup post: “Causes are best advanced by signalling to politicians and their partisans that specific behavior will end up costing them winnable votes.” Daniel Larison, who also leans towards Johnson, makes a similar point: “The purpose of voting third party on foreign policy grounds is to register a protest against at least some aspects of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy”. But this attitude misunderstands signaling, and overestimates the receptiveness of its audience. For ever politician that reads Friedersdorf’s vote for Johnson as an incentive to oppose the drone war, another will see an electoral reward for gutting social services. Protest vote signals don’t allow for nuance, particularly if they aren’t cast by major columnists who can spend thousands of words explaining just what issue their third party vote is, in fact, protesting. If a protest vote for the Green Party is a signal towards politicians to move towards the left on vital but neglected issues like climate change, it’s also in favor of idealistic military interventions and bad nuclear policy.