Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

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MLK, Obama, and the Audacity of Intervention in Syria

by Stewart M. Patrick
August 26, 2013

President Barack Obama speaks at a dedication ceremony of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington October 16, 2011. (Molly Riley/Courtesy Reuters)


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.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    MLK was clearly against the Vietnam War when it was not a popular position. One imagines that he would be squarely against intervention in Syria. There is really no rationale for employing the use of chemical weapons as a benchmark for intervention. Why not cluster bombs? There has been no convincing evidence offered attributing the alleged chemical weapon attacks to the Syrian government. Are assertions to replace clear evidence? And what body adjudicates when intervention for any reason may be undertaken. There is actually such a body, and it is the UN Security Council. There are many issues to sort through, but none of them are being effectively addressed, which leads one to believe that the chemical weapons meme is merely a pretext for intervention.

    Some are arguing that the goal is to remove the chemical weapons stockpiles because it is an important deterrent in Syria’s arsenal.

    Instead of burying these issues, the CFR should raise them one by one, and allow various points of view to be expressed. While the CFR insists that it takes no stand on issues, by restricting debate and allowing only some voices to be expressed, it effectively supports particular viewpoints. Polls have shown that Americans are resoundingly opposed to any kind of military intervention in Syria, yet this view seems to be marginalized in the public debate over what, if anything, should be done.

  • Posted by Peter

    You suggest that the use of chemical weapons would be a violation of international law. While I am not completely versed in this specific area of international law, I am unaware of any international convention or law which Syria is signatory to which would cause this to be a violation. My understanding is that the Geneva convention, the only one I can think of which Syria is party to, specifies international (not civil) conflict, and the protocol which would extend the protections to civil conflict I do not believe Syria has adopted. The major convention which would cover this is the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria has not signed.

    This is not to say that their behavior is not egregious, but from a purely legal perspective, I do not believe they have violated any international laws they have signed.

    As far as the history of US involvement in similar issues, the last large scale acknowledged use of chemical weapons was in Halabja Iraq in 1988, the US response was a proposed trade embargo which was vetoed by President Reagan. Recent polices notwithstanding, the precedent of inaction has already been set.

    While the use of chemical weapons, especially against civilians, is abhorrent, the greater question must be asked, what are the consequences of our actions should we intervene, and what character would that intervention take? It has been hinted that it would be a limited engagement with little to no US personnel deployed on the ground, does that suggest that we would limit our forces to targeting Syrian military installations. Would that truly accomplish the as yet undefined goal? Would a strike at a chemical weapons depot render them safe or disperse their contents and inflict massive collateral damage?

    Again, while it is atrocious to watch innocents killed by poison gas, the US has no clearly stated strategy, policy, or goal with regards to its involvement in Syria. Haphazardly launching an attack without preparing for the consequences would be a great folly. The US should not become involved. While Assad has never been an ally, he is a known entity. The disparate forces of the rebellion have limited direction, resources, or power. To hand them a victory would further increase the instability in the region for years to come, and while Assad is no friend to the US, he is no enemy. Should the rebel groups headed by Al-Qaeda form a coalition amongst the revolutionaries and take power, the US will have a well armed enemy who may actively oppose it.

  • Posted by Jim Talbot

    It’s curious that because several hundred people were killed by a chemical weapon recently, but 40,000 civilians were killed over the life of this conflict by bombs and bullets is not equivalent. For some reason death by gassing is more horrible than death by other martial means is suddenly reason for yet another armed intervention in Syria. Isn’t the killing of innocent civilians by any means cause for concern? To intervene now seems ludicrous as the U.S. has already established its position on this matter by not intervening sooner. Let’s let Syria work out its problems.

  • Posted by Tom Farer

    Escalating butchery by the Syrian regime was predictable as soon as peaceful protestors began to be killed. That was the appropriate moment to assure the Syrian leadership that while the US did not seek regime change, it would begin progressive decimation of regime leaders if they did not cease killing and begin opening the political system. Being unwilling to employ force against the leadership, indeed unwilling to employ force at all, the President should not have called for Assad’s removal or drawn red lines. He has created this moment’s excruciating dilemma and failed to prepare for it, as his belated consultations demonstrate.

  • Posted by George Chakko

    At the outset let me thank Patrick for spending some time on the moral side of events, especially in our present –day banal world seeped in “anti-moral” ground realities, say, practices. However, I feel compelled to attempt a conceptual clean-up to avoid future confusions, pointing to moral philosophy as guideline. Here are few correctives.
    a) I don’t understand why you find it controversial if President Obama considers himself, as a “citizen of the world”. What’s wrong in that? We are all citizens and partakers of life on this one planet Earth irrespective of where we live. So our citizenry is global. All of us need to look beyond our borders and see our fellow human beings as belonging to one world family. If Obama believes in it, then he is an “evolved”, higher, human being than those sixty per cent of U. S. congressmen-/women reportedly not possessing a passport!
    b) You speak of the tragic ethics of statecraft. Sounds a cliché fabrication: Ethics can never be tragic. It is a body of principles handed down from millennia-old thinking and experience, handed down as regulative control for human relations and behaviour. Thus, the adjective ‘tragic’ is false.
    c) Ethical relativism or relativity is inadmissible in philosophical ethics, if you mean that when you talk of “ethical realism”. To quote a theologian on ethics is out of place here, because the more relevant thinkers on this are philosophers like Immanuel Kant (the famed ‘Categorical Imperative’ & ‘Metaphysics of Morals’.). Much earlier, Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, and the Hindu Bhagavat Gita had also laid out objective ethical principles for practice. If one argues that certain ethical principles are practicable and certain others not , as according to circumstances or as due to such, then you fall into the trap of arbitrary, subjective, preferential judgement, overturning objective, ethical / moral validity.
    d) Finally, any use of violence to counter violence is immoral, it is not non-violence. Some even argue offence is a form of defence, a morally illegitimate thought cliché. Violence begets violence only because of human moral failure. That is where and why leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are great shining examples, worthy of emulation for posterity on this planet.

    George Chakko, Former U.N. correspondent at the Vienna International Center, now retiree.
    Vienna, Aug. 30, 2013

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