THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

War and Peace

"There is one very pregnant question," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. "How do you reconcile your role as a commander in chief with your aspirations to promote a more peaceful world at a time of war?"

Messrs. Axelrod, Ben Rhodes and Jon Faveau (these last two Obama's speechwriters) need to be reminded that speeches are not principally about smoke-and-mirror lyricism or glittering turns of an empty phrase. If they are going to fundamentally wrap Obama in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. they should be very careful not to corrupt or misuse the moral foundation and authority of Dr. King's leadership. Obviously, they were astute enough to recognize the threshold dilemma confronting them: whether President Obama's role as commander in chief at a time of war poses any moral imperatives on him as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The underlying theme of President Obama's speech was the enunciation of a 21st Century doctrine of a just war. Regrettably, neither Gandhi nor Dr. King are here to challenge and rebut Obama. Hopefully, Dr. Vincent Harding and other scholars on non-violence and disciples of Dr. King will respond to the challenge.

Clearly Obama decided to elevate pragmatism over principle or morality. Among other things, he said:

"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

"I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago -- "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

"But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone."

So here is an African-American man holding a job unimagined for someone with his skin color just a few short generations ago telling us that Gandhi and King's teaching can change the underpinnings of the most powerful nation on the earth, but for the dusty tribal squabbles halfway around the globe they're not good enough? This to me sounds like a man reading a TelePrompter, not speaking what he believes.

"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 non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

"I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.

"I raise this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower."

In responding to reporters' questions in Oslo after he arrived President Obama said that the prize for Dr. King in 1964 had "a galvanizing effect around the world, but also lifted his stature in the United States in a way that allowed him to be more effective."

I would add that it wasn't so much the Prize that raised his stature but the acknowledgment that it was a well-deserved honor, one in complete harmony with the recipient's moral leadership principles and philosophy. Can the same be said of the president?

In addition to the attention he's receiving, Mr. Obama told reporters, "I think it's important to congratulate the Nobel Committee for the work that it's done over the course of history to highlight the cause of peace, but also to give voice to the voiceless and the oppressed around the world." By extension, of course, we're using our singular military might to speak for the downtrodden. Please. This is painful to hear coming from Obama; it sounds exactly like George W. Bush rhetoric about fighting for the freedom and the defenseless.

The subtext of Obama's speech appears to be that he, in this particular state of world affairs, can be exempt from the constraints of moral leadership implicit in the receipt of the Nobel Prize and still use it as a political marketing tool. But it doesn't work that way. Aside from a 21st century update of the "just war" doctrine, he wanted to underscore its acceptance by wrapping Dr. King's Nobel Peace Prize mantel around him. Thus, he said:

"But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. 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 faith in human progress -- must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

"For if we lose that faith -- if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace -- then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass."


Obama appears to have decided that he can reset the moral compass of Martin King and still claim true north on the basis of pursuit of his "just wars." Under Obama's just war doctrine General Patraeus tells us America's role in Afghanistan could last for years and cost upward of $10 billion annually just to finance an adequate Afghan security force.

This isn't simply considering other ideas besides those of King and Gandhi. This is marching in the opposite direction of those wise philosophers.

As Dr. King said on this occasion so many years ago:

"I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him.

"So let us reach for the world that ought to be - that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls."

The universality of Dr. King's moral leadership remains uncorrupted in the eloquent aftermath of Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. The jury is still out on whether the same can be said for Obama's leadership.

Forget Tolstoy -- it's never war and peace, Mr. Obama. It's always war or peace. Choose a side. But remember, you don't get to stand on the shoulders of Martin King with one of those choices. No matter what you want to tell yourself.

Clarence B. Jones, former counsel, advisor and draft speechwriter, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, is Scholar in Residence/Visiting Professor, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research Education Institute, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA.