from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

MLK, Obama, and the Audacity of Intervention in Syria

August 26, 2013

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At first glance the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the chemical weapons crisis in Syria seem entirely unrelated. But they offer an opportunity to juxtapose the visions of war and peace of two influential Americans. On the one side is the towering figure of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), an apostle of nonviolent resistance, convinced that “violence never brings permanent peace.” On the other is President Barack Obama, himself product of the civil rights struggle, who confronts an agonizing policy choice in Syria after the suspected chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime on civilian populations last week.

Like King, President Obama has declared himself appalled by the carnage of war. Also like King, he has been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. But there is an important difference between the two men. As a statesman rather than a minister, President Obama understands the tragic ethics of statecraft. Namely, that the pursuit of peace and justice may require the sword as well as the olive branch. The question now is whether he will unsheath it in Syria.

Throughout his career and his Presidency, Obama has often sought inspiration from King’s example. The title of his second bestseller, Audacity of Hope, is a tribute to MLK, who often spoke of the “audacity” of his own vision for equal rights in America. After President’s Obama’s election to the White House, he decorated the Oval Office with a rug featuring one of King’s favorite quotations: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

This week’s commemorations on the D.C. Mall focused, understandably, on MLK’s domestic legacy: his spine-tingling “I Have a Dream” speech, his advocacy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and his eventual martyrdom. But his vision was an inherently global one, and it had enormous impact abroad. Like Gandhi, whose example inspired him, MLK was an evangelist for human dignity worldwide, including implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At home, King worked to vindicate the principles of freedom and justice celebrated at America’s founding but still unrealized a century after slavery’s end. But he belonged to all those struggling for freedom globally. And he yearned for the ultimate solidarity of all peoples. As he told his Nobel audience in 1964, “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.” (President Obama has echoed this sentiment by describing himself, controversially, as a “citizen of the world”).

The heart of King’s Nobel Prize speech was a ringing endorsement of nonviolent change. “Violence often brings about momentary victories,” he conceded, but “never brings permanent peace.”

It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

Contrast King’s speech with President Obama’s remarks from the same podium forty-five years later. Whether or not the President’s 2009 prize was ridiculous (as some critics alleged) or merely “premature”, the actual address he delivered was compelling—and is relevant to the current crisis in Syria. Its most striking contention—and a stark rebuff to King—is that the cause of peace sometimes warrants war, on ethical grounds. “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth….”, the President insists. “There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

Obama explicitly acknowledges that King and Gandhi would disagree.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not to a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

The position that the President outlined in Oslo—call it “ethical realism”—owes less to Reverend King’s utopianism than the sober-minded writings of the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who contended that force was justified to check humanity’s lust for power. Obama, like Niebuhr, understands the inherent tragedy of the human predicament: “Our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths—that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”

Today, the President finds himself on the horns of this dilemma in Syria. Focused on winding down the twelve-year commitment in Afghanistan, the President is loathe to risk U.S. lives and resources in yet another military morass. And yet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons offers two powerful justifications for military action. First, it constitutes (if substantiated) an egregious violation of international law, risking the collapse of a Weapons of Mass Destruction taboo that has stuck for a quarter century. Second, it represents a massive atrocity crime against unarmed civilians—one greater than any violation Moammar Gaddafi committed in Libya—meriting intervention under the so-called “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine.

In his Nobel address, the President defended the right to intervene against regimes that commit either category of crime.  Assad, having not only crossed but trampled President Obama’s “red line”on the use of chemical weapons, has provided the United States and like-minded governments with ample justification for intervention. With all due respect to Dr. King, the time to act is now.

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