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Obama: Domestic Social Agenda vs. Foreign War

Obama: Domestic Social Agenda vs. Foreign War

By Peter Dyer

This article was first published on Consortium News:

Can we successfully fight for social and economic justice in the United States while simultaneously escalating a war in Asia? Barack Obama says we can. But forty-one years ago, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. warned against doing exactly that.

On April 4, 1967 Dr King delivered a passionate speech at Riverside Church in New York outlining the reasons for his controversial opposition to the war in Vietnam. Central to his argument was the incompatibility of war overseas with the struggle for justice at home:

"There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were 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. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

It’s reasonable to guess that if Dr. King were still alive he would have applauded Barack Obama’s victory in this year’s presidential election. No single person did more to make possible the election of an African-American president than Dr. King.

It’s also likely the 79 year-old King would have endorsed the strong emphasis on social and economic justice in Obama’s domestic agenda. For millions of people in the U.S. and around the world his election has provided “a real promise of hope”-another long overdue “shining moment” in increasingly dark times.

The spirit of Barack Obama’s call for “change we can believe in” echoes Dr. King’s call in New York for “…a radical revolution of values.”

Dr. King said: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

At this point, though, the perspectives of the two leaders diverge. Central to the philosophy of the iconic apostle of nonviolence was his fervent opposition to war. The President-elect, however, despite his eloquent and moving opposition to racism and, arguably, materialism, is considerably more comfortable with militarism.

In 1967, Dr. King said: “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’”

The contrast to Obama’s pledge in the 2008 presidential campaign is stark: “We will kill bin Laden; we will crush Al Qaida. That has to be our biggest national security priority.”

Obama said “I have a different vision, and I will offer a clean break from the failed policies and politics of the past.” (Fayetteville, North Carolina 19 March 2008).

Many items in his domestic agenda really do seem to represent a break from the past. Among these are guaranteed “affordable, quality” health insurance for all, with an emphasis on prevention; raising the minimum wage to $9.50/hr by 2011 and indexing it to inflation; ending American “addiction to oil” and the creation of 5,000,000 new “green” jobs; support for labor unions and a strong emphasis on education.

As far as the critical issue of war is concerned, though, the essence of Obama’s “different vision” appears to involve little more than a different location of “the central front in the war on terror.”

For Obama, this is Afghanistan. Accordingly he plans to shift combat from Iraq to Afghanistan, there to escalate the war because, “this is a war that we must win.” (from “Change We Can Believe In, p. 109.)

Escalation in Afghanistan will involve, according to, deployment of “at least an additional two brigades (7,000 personnel).” In addition, Obama plans to use the increased U.S. troop numbers to urge NATO to do more.

There are now generally reported to be about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including 13,000 assigned to NATO. As of October 6, 2008, the strength of the International Security Assistance Force (NATO military force in Afghanistan) was over 50,000.

Between Obama’s long-planned increase of at least 7000 U.S. troops, the likelihood of an increase in NATO forces and the possibility of an “Afghanistan Surge” being discussed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others, the total number of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan may soon approach 100,000.

To be sure, Obama seems more open to negotiation with “enemies” such as Iran than the Bush administration has been. He has, as well, hinted he may be open to a regional solution in the Middle East.

He has made it clear, though, that his approach to Afghanistan will be based, first and foremost, on a military buildup.

Dr. King spoke of a “society gone mad on war.” What might he have thought, then, watching Americans elect a brilliant and charismatic man who, after seven years of war under the Bush administration, somehow successfully presented an escalation of combat as a “different vision”-a “clean break from the failed policies and politics of the past?”

The parallel to the 60s is disturbing. The unsustainable duality of domestic social progress and foreign war Dr King denounced seems about to be revived.

If and when this happens, will escalating war eviscerate the domestic social agenda as happened in the 60s?

Last New Year’s Eve in Iowa Falls, Obama said, “I chose to run in this election - at this moment - because of what Dr. King called ‘the fierce urgency of now.’” Dr. King’s memorable phrase became a trademark of Obama’s campaign rhetoric.

Ironically, though, Dr. King spoke of “the fierce urgency of now” in the context of a passionate plea for an end to war. Here is more of what he said that night in 1967:

“War is not the answer… We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.

…We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity.

…We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world -- a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

Forty-one years ago Dr. King warned it may be too late.

This year, Barack Obama’s promise of “change we can believe in” has renewed hope in the future for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. However, as Dr. King urged, unless we find a “new way to speak for peace” in Afghanistan, we may soon experience the tragedy of another lost opportunity.


Peter Dyer is a freelance journalist who moved with his wife from California to New Zealand in 2004. He can be reached at .

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