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Following the 2000 Bush victory we asked US war resister and former presidential candidate David McReynolds to comment on the result. Fast-forward four years and, under a certain worldwide cloud of despondency, we ask him again for his thoughts.

After the election

Peace News readers will understand the sick feeling many Americans had when we woke up on 3 November and found George Bush had been re-elected. That feeling was deeper because the exit polls on Tuesday afternoon suggested John Kerry would win the election. The exit polls were wrong, Bush won, Kerry lost, and unlike 2000, when the election really was stolen, this time the Bush margin was so clear - over two million votes ahead of Kerry in the popular vote - that the Left must abandon the “conspiracy mode” into which too many have fallen.

Why did Kerry lose and what does the Bush victory mean? The first question can't be answered - though everyone will, of course, try their hand at it. Kerry lost because the gay marriage initiatives on 11 state ballots brought out the evangelicals. Kerry lost because he hadn't come out clearly against the war. Kerry lost because he had been too far left, or because he hadn't been left enough. In fact I don't know why Kerry lost. Or, to be more precise, I do know why he lost - he didn't get as many votes as George Bush - but I don't know how that was possible! Up until the votes were counted, I had thought Kerry would win.

Talibanisation of US politics

Rarely has a president had so many things going against him as Bush. His election in 2000 was a fraud, he lost the popular vote and if all the votes in Florida had been counted he would have lost the electoral vote as well. He presided over a weak economy with heavy job losses. He got the country into a deeply unpopular war, based on assumptions - weapons of mass destruction, potential nuclear weapons, links to terrorism - which were all disproved.

One reason I had thought Kerry would win was because so many establishment conservatives had withdrawn support from Bush. Certainly one reason he won - though I don't think the decisive reason - was the “Talibanisation” of US politics, the shift toward conservative religious views, toward a new emphasis on “values”.

I'm not sure this alleged shift to a “values politics” makes much sense - I would think values might mean Americans would be more alarmed than they are at the toll of Iraqi deaths, or the virtual institutionalisation of poverty in the US. Certainly, without much question, one reason Bush won was the continuing fear of terrorism. (It is ironic - and proves my point as to how analysts view events - that Bin Laden's pre-election tape was blamed in advance for Bush's likely defeat, and credited after the election for Kerry's defeat.)

Personally I'm fed up with the fear of terrorism - almost as if each of us felt we had a golden guarantee of eternal life, except for terrorists. Much of the rest of the world has lived with terrorism far worse than anything the US has experienced and has managed to keep a sense of proportion. Americans, God forgive us, simply have not been exposed to the realities of war - unlike the rest of the world.

A sense of shame

If I'm suspicious of all the reasons being advanced for Kerry's defeat, it is because analysts have to write something - that is their business. The actual turnout of voters was, for the US, quite high. The Bush margin - 51% - was hardly a landslide. A shift of two percentage points and the same analysts who are so sure why Kerry lost would be equally sure about why he won. Sometimes we just don't know. And I'm one of those who, heartsick as I am, really don't know.

What I do know is that rarely have I felt quite such despair - and felt it as widely shared - as in the stunned aftermath of this election. It certainly wasn't because Kerry was “our leader”. He wasn't. He was simply the alternative to Bush. The hatred of Bush is visceral and part of it, at least for me, is a real sense of shame that the international community will equate Bush with Americans as a whole. (And since he won the popular vote, I'm afraid we deserve this!) Bush is a man who rejoices in not reading newspapers and who, until his election in 2000, had never travelled abroad. A former drunk and cocaine abuser, almost nothing was known about him until, ten year ago, when he became Governor of Texas. He dodged the draft, didn't fulfil his military duties, failed in business, got by with help from his family and on the basis of his name - and now he is our president. For many of us there is an acute sense of shame that this man represents all of us on the world stage.

My only consolation - and it is very small - is that the British must feel somewhat the same way with Tony Blair as their prime minister. (Though there is much less excuse for Blair - he is bright, widely read, widely travelled - why he has chosen to become Bush's unindicted co-conspirator in war crimes is an even greater mystery to me than why Bush got re-elected.)

The war criminals

What the Bush re-election means is perhaps easier to guess at than why the election went so badly. His margin of victory - and the shift in the House and Senate to the conservatives - means the composition of the Supreme Court will change for the worse, in terms of civil liberties and women's rights.

In foreign policy he is constrained primarily by the troop shortage, which limits the danger to other countries - Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea - that he might want to invade. The dangers of nuclear proliferation are, on balance, greater, since US policies have not been designed to win a consensus in international affairs and in these matters consensus is ultimately more important than the righteous (and arrogant) big stick Bush waves about.

Because of term limits on US Presidents, Bush cannot run again so the fight over the next Republican presidential nomination begins immediately. The war in Iraq is now entirely Bush's. (Had Kerry won, he might have found some way to finesse a US exit, but he would have been under heavy constraints not to have been seen as “too soft on terrorists”. One of the problems for US liberals is that they rarely can make peace. It took the Republican general - Eisenhower to make peace in Korea. It took another Republican, Nixon, to recognise China and end the war in Vietnam.) Bush has begun, as this is written, a major attack on Fallujah, and to pursue a “military solution” to a war which, from its inception, was criminal.

Those of us in the peace movement, even as we demand the end of military intervention in Iraq, should not overlook the central fact that the governments of US and Britain are engaged in a violation of the United Nations Charter, and both Bush and Blair should be indicted by some international legal mechanism for the crime of a war of aggression.

The fact this won't happen should not silence us nor distract us from insisting that the war is not only wrong, it is also illegal under international law and the law-breakers must be held responsible. If the Hague Tribunals make any sense at all, they must be applied to Bush and Blair.

And end of motive?

It is possible that, with the Iraq war now fully a Bush war, that the conservative opposition to that war will provoke divisions in the Republican Party. The war itself was fundamentally about oil - no matter what the neoconservative ideologues may argue. But as it now becomes clear that no one is going to profit much from Iraq's oil for a long time to come, and as it becomes clearer to longrange thinkers that the West (and the rest of the world) must begin to seriously examine alternative energy sources, that motive may play itself out.

To a lesser extent the US/Israeli link was a factor - not as much as some have argued, but still, a factor. As US conservatives come to question the war, they may also question the special link with Israel. That would be bad news for Israel, which has counted on unwavering US support to save it from serious negotiations with the Palestinians.

Small comfort

For those of us in the pacifist community the sad thing - heartbreaking, in fact - is that our own peaceful and democratic actions may have less influence on immediate events than the suicide bombings in the Middle East. And the problem with suicide bombings is that, once they become “acceptable”, they can spread. It is an insane tactic, based on a set of beliefs so extreme that compromise becomes impossible. Truly Bush may have opened the gates of hell with the invasion of Iraq.

For us, no matter how deeply shocked we were by the election, we have no choice but to continue our work, using all democratic and nonviolent tactics open to us. That is small comfort at the moment to tens of millions of Americans who had worked so hard to bring down the Bush regime. The only consolation in such bad times is that all things change.

David McReynolds, former chair of War Resisters' International, and for many years on the staff of the US War Resisters League, ran in November as the Green Party candidate for the US Senate in New York, on a strong antiwar platform, getting 1% of the vote.