With our nation poised to enter yet another great Middle Eastern civil war, this time in Syria, we are once again witnessing the glaring gap between President Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric and his public policy. This gap - evidenced by juxtaposing Obama's recent invocation of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Obama's recent announcement to use force in response to a deadly chemical attack blamed on the Syrian government - is a betrayal of King's legacy.
Those of us who watched Obama in front of the Lincoln Memorial understood that the future of our democratic experiment is inextricably linked to how seriously we as a nation take King's legacy. Does Obama understand this? Regardless, by speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Obama has by default invited comparisons between his words and King's, as Tavis Smiley recently wrote in the Washington Post.
Consider this: Obama might become the first U.S. leader in three decades to attack a country without garnering broad international support or acting in direct defense of the American people. What would King think?
On Wednesday, August 28, Obama spoke to the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Obama invoked King multiple times and acknowledged the "ordinary people" who attended the 1963 march and "kept marching" for days, weeks, months, and years afterward. Obama said: "In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in, with the moral force of nonviolence."
Three days later, on Saturday, August 31, Obama spoke to the nation from the White House Rose Garden. On the heels of his speech on Wednesday in which he honored those who marched and "chose a different path," Obama said: "Ten days ago, the world watched in horror as men, women and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century. Yesterday the United States presented a powerful case that the Syrian government was responsible for this attack on its own people. . . . In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted. Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets."
In saying this, and presumably acting upon it, Obama is betraying the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., by touting militarism, one of the three crimes against humanity for which King fought and died. Obama is not King, and he knows it. In fact, Obama knows he cannot be King, because he is king. They're both Nobel Peace Prize laureates, but King was a Christian minister and Obama is a U.S. president - two very different roles. Obama has the option of pursuing nonviolent strategies with Syria but, as policy professionals like Rep. Raul Grijalva and Michael Shank noted in their Fox News opinion piece, Obama is "flouting, somewhat ostentatiously, international law."
As Dr. Cornel West, professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and the unofficial figurehead of the modern day civil rights movement, recently told CNN, King was an advocate for the kingdom of truth, a "militant for tenderness." Obama is seemingly not. We must not judge Obama "by the color of his skin, but by the content of his policies," according to West.
At the end of his speech commemorating the 1963 March on Washington, Obama invoked "the fierce urgency of now," the hard work we must all do to keep the flame of justice burning. He said: "Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day -- that change does not come from Washington, but to Washington; that change has always been built on our willingness, We The People, to take on the mantle of citizenship -- you are marching."
Unfortunately, Obama is marching us into yet another unnecessary war, even if the force he is proposing is "limited in duration and scope." Lawmakers across the political divide are raising a broad range of legitimate concerns: the ineffectiveness of the proposed strikes, the unintended consequence of dragging the U.S. into another open-ended Middle East conflict, the misguidedness of acting without broader international backing.
We cannot allow our president to take us into what might be yet another great Middle Eastern war. And so, in the spirit of King, we the people must hold our president accountable to the way of nonviolence and a just peace.
We must tell our president and elected officials loud and clear that we cannot and do not want to enter yet another open-ended Middle Eastern conflict, that ending violence in Syria requires a long-term solution that priorities diplomacy, international law, and the International Criminal Court and to otherwise think outside the box of the military-industrial complex, as human security advocate Dr. Lisa Schirch noted in a Huffington Post piece. This, I believe, would honor the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave his life for freedom, justice, and equality.