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Between Hope and Despair: Martin Luther King, Barack Obama and War

Obama gave us hope when he promised global cooperation, re-engagement with the Muslim world and respect for international law. But his actions speak another language.
 
 
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The Washington DC memorial to Martin Luther King, located on the Tidal Basin between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, was supposed to be completed by now. President Clinton authorized the memorial in 1996; President Bush appeared at a groundbreaking ceremony in 2006, as did Senator Barack Obama. But the memorial, designed with a massive statue of King and two huge rocks representing the Mountain of Despair and the Stone of Hope, was left hovering in legal and bureaucratic limbo for a dozen years.

In the meantime, Senator Obama became President Obama. And in the course of one year, those who thought President Obama would move our nation closer towards Dr. King's vision find themselves tottering, like King's memorial, between hope and despair.

Obama certainly gave the world hope when he spoke of the importance of diplomacy, global cooperation, re-engaging with the Muslim world and respecting international law.

But his actions speak another language. He promised to end torture and close Guantanamo but extraordinary renditions continue, Guantanamo is still open, and the Bagram prison in Afghanistan is still filled with over 600 prisoners who have been held indefinitely -- some for six years -- with no charges and no trials.

Obama promised to reignite the peace process in the Middle East, and tried to get a commitment from the Israeli government to freeze settlements. But he backed off then Israel refused the freeze. Moreover, Obama authorized $30 billion to Israel with no strings attached, dismissed the Goldstone report that called for an investigation into Israeli war crimes during the invasion of Gaza, and refuses to even talk to the democratically elected government in Gaza: Hamas.

In Iraq, Obama won support from a majority of Americans by setting a timeline for withdrawing U.S. combat troops by August 31, 2010 and pulling all troops out by the end of 2011. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates, during a visit to Iraq in December 2009, said Air Force advisers will probably stay in Iraq after the end of 2011. And nobody is promising to pull out private contractors.

But it is the escalation of the war in Afghanistan -- and beyond to Pakistan -- that is the greatest cause for despair as it reveals an administration stuck in the mindset of militarism.

Martin Luther King, dealing with the military mindset of his time, called for a revolution of values. In his powerful April 4, 1967 speech outlining his opposition to the war in Vietnam, King put forward his vision: "A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: This way of settling differences is not just. This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Obama would do well to examine the reasons that King turned his moral compass to opposing the Vietnam war, as the parallels with Afghanistan are striking:

  • * King saw President Johnson's Poverty Program as a moment of real promise for the poor, both black and white. "Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken as if it was some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic, destructive suction tube."  Obama's domestic programs -- from heath care to jobs to green initiatives -- all require hundreds of billions of dollars. By 2009, Congress had approved over $1 trillion dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the administration will soon ask for another $33 billion to pay for the surge. This continued emphasis on war and a bloated Pentagon budget is making it impossible for Obama to fund critical domestic programs in a time of financial crisis.
  • King was concerned about the death of U.S. soldiers, and the disproportionate number of soldiers from poor communities. He also pointed out that young black men were being sent thousands of miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia that they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. Today, with a volunteer army instead of a draft, the poor still disproportionately enlist and fight, and military recruiters do their most aggressive recruiting in neighborhoods that fall below the median income.
  • King also felt a calling to oppose the war because of the suffering it brought to the people of Vietnam. He expressed compassion for the Vietnamese who, like Afghans, had been under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades. "It is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution until some attempt is made to know these people and hear their broken cries," he said.

The cries of innocent Afghans have been getting louder. A January 2010 report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said that 2009 saw the highest number of civilian casualties since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, with at least 5,978 civilians killed or injured. Civilian deaths were up 14 percent from 2008. The report cited the use of air strikes and the placement of military facilities in civilian areas as greatly increasing the risk of civilians being killed and injured. It documented 65 incidents in which air strikes, including those by unmanned drones, resulting in the deaths of civilians.

In Pakistan, the U.S. launched 44 drone strikes in 2009. According to DAWN News, these drones killed 708 people, the vast majority of them civilians. The use of drones and paramilitary teams to assassinate adversaries violates international law and helps swell the ranks of Al Qaeda.

King gave another compelling reason he opposed the war: love of country. "I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love."

Finally, King felt the heavy burden of another responsibility: winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He said the prize gave him a responsibility beyond national allegiances to "work harder than I had ever worked before for the brotherhood of Man." During his acceptance speech, he put forth his vision of a world without war. "I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God," he said, "and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land."

When Obama accepted the Peace Prize, he acknowledged the moral force of nonviolence that King espoused, but said that as a head of state sworn to defend his country, Obama had to be a realist, to face the world "as it is." "We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes," Obama declared. "There will be times when nations will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."

Still, mindful that he was receiving a peace prize, Obama invoked King's message of hope and love. "The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached -- their fundamental faith in human progress -- must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey." Many wonder if Obama has lost his moral compass.

Back in 2006 when Senator Obama spoke at the King memorial groundbreaking ceremony that never broke ground, he speculated on what he would tell his daughters about Dr. King. He would tell them that King never held public office but he led the nation by his vision, determination, and "most of all, faith in the redeeming power of love."

He would say that King "pointed the way for us towards a land no longer torn asunder with racial hatred and ethnic strife, a land that measured itself by how it treats the least of these, a land in which strength is defined not simply by the capacity to wage war but by the determination to forge peace."

"We have not yet arrived at this longed for place," he would tell Sasha and Malia. "For all the progress we have made, there are times when the land of our dreams recedes from us - when we are lost, wandering spirits, content with our suspicions and our angers, our long-held grudges and petty disputes, our frantic diversions and tribal allegiances. And yet, by erecting this monument, we are reminded that this different, better place beckons us."

In January 2010, construction on the King Memorial finally began. It should be completed in the fall of 2011 -- the same time that U.S. troops are scheduled to return from Iraq. By then we should have a better understanding of where, between the Mountain of Despair and the Stone of Hope, Obama's legacy will lie.

 
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