Obama is closer to Nixon than to MLK

The US president’s militaristic foreign policy shows how far removed he is from the civil rights leader’s ideas.

Martin Luther King
Dr Martin Luther King was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War and American militarism [Getty]

Because Barack Obama is the United States’ first black president, there are many who still automatically associate him with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. And with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it’s virtually a knee-jerk reaction to associate his presidency with the fulfillment of King’s dream.

But, as the almost-simultaneous sentencing of Chelsea nee Bradley Manning to 35 years in prison should remind us, a more accurate historical comparison to that time would link Obama to Richard Nixon, rather than King. Nixon, after all, tried to have Daniel Ellsberg jailed for revealing the Pentagon Papers, and Ellsberg himself has said, “I’m sure that President Obama would have sought a life sentence in my case.”

Elaborating further, Ellsberg said, “Various things that were counted as unconstitutional then have been put in the president’s hands now. He’s become an elected monarch. Nixon’s slogan, ‘when the president does it, it’s not illegal’, is pretty much endorsed now. Meaning not only Obama but the people who come after him will have powers that no previous president had.”

It’s telling that Manning’s 35-year sentence is longer than those of five people convicted of actual terrorist activity, while the “harm” Manning is charged with causing is entirely speculative, and is arguably far outweighed by the good. More on that below.

If raising the issue of Manning’s sentence seems out of place alongside the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, it’s because most people have no idea who the real Martin Luther King, Jr. was. But there’s good reason for such widespread ignorance – which is very much the flip side of why that speech has become so famous, as Gary Younge, author of The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream, recently explained:

[A]s America casts a way to remember him and that period, they can’t remember him as the guy who campaigns against the Vietnam War and American militarism because that’s still happening. They can’t remember him as a the guy who rallied against poverty and called for government intervention because that’s still going on. But to remember him as that man who articulated that great moment where America decided to get rid of codified segregation, well he articulated that moment like nobody else had, and that’s a very convenient way to remember him.

US marks anniversary of King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech

Wallace’s legacy

Anti-racism was only one facet of what King was about. And ending codified racism was only one step – though a giant one, akin to ending slavery – on a journey toward full racial equality that still continues. But each step forward has been used in turn by those who opposed the journey itself to try to convince us to abandon the journey because it was already done. And that’s exactly what’s happened with King’s legacy, in a way pioneered by George Wallace, as neatly summarised recently by civil rights historian Taylor Branch:

By the end of 1963, with segregation losing its stable respectability, he [Wallace] dropped the word altogether from a fresh stump speech denouncing “big government” by “pointy-headed bureaucrats,” tyrannical judges, and “tax, tax, spend, spend” legislators. He spurned racial discourse, calling it favouritism, and insisted with aplomb that he had never denigrated any person or group in his fight for local control. Wallace, though still weighted by a hateful reputation, mounted the first of three strong presidential campaigns.

Wallace rarely gets credit for his key role in redefining conservatism; it would be too damning to admit. But it’s credit that he richly deserves. Moreover, his strategy of retrenchment against advancing civil rights also helped derail King’s economic agenda, which included full employment and a guaranteed annual income. In his 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?“, King said:

John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about $20bn a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend $35bn a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and $20bn to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.

If that sounds unimaginable today, you have George Wallace to thank for that. But if Wallace led the way in blocking the fulfillment of King’s agenda fighting racism and poverty, Nixon did the same on militarism – in a very Obama-like way: by maintaining bipartisan continuity in perpetrating and hiding war crimes, even as he kept promising “peace with honour”. (The Pentagon Papers, after all, were entirely about the pre-Nixon war years.)

And so it is that we live in a world where the background assumptions of the United States’ political class – on race, poverty and war, most directly – derive from George Wallace and Richard Nixon. As Gary Younge might put it, we celebrate King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” precisely to help us forget that. And we celebrate Obama as our first black president to help us forget as well. For who better to continue the politics of Wallace and Nixon than someone who superficially looks like the embodiment of King’s dream?

To be sure, Obama continues those policies in a stance akin to Tony Blair continuing Margaret Thatcher’s – as a moderate opposition figure pledging to do a kinder, gentler, better job of technocratic management, without ever questioning the basic framework. That’s what Obama’s talk of “post-partisanship” and “consensus” is actually all about – in sharp contrast to what King had to say: “Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”

Inspired by King’s vision

Yet, even as Obama has continued Bush’s “long war”, ignored past war crimes, and continued committing new ones, there are still those inspired by King’s vision, and those who acted in concert with it, such as Daniel Ellsberg. By following in Ellsberg’s footsteps, Chelsea Manning is far closer to Martin Luther King than Barack Obama could ever dream of being. And now she’s paying the price.

The real reason Ellsberg and Manning were treated so differently is because of what the US has become. Ellsberg took action after years of an increasingly militant and popular anti-war movement, which had grown to encompass a substantial amount of Vietnam veterans as well as those still on the battlefield. It was not until after 9/11 that American elites finally suceeded in overcoming the dreaded “Vietnam syndrome”, and having accomplished that is what accounts for how differently Manning has been treated. As Chase Madar explained for the Nation, with a much weaker anti-war movement, and a much more complicit, compromised press, there were no truly credible scapegoats for the twin debacles of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – until Manning.

Manning sentenced to 35 years in prison

Adding another level of irony, it’s virtually certain that the scapegoat Manning actually saved American lives. One of Manning’s many WikiLeaks revelations concerned the extent of unpunished war crimes by US troops in Iraq, which ultimately appeared to help undermine Obama’s attempt to keep tens of thousands of “residual troops” in Iraq. “[T]here’s strong reason to believe that without Bradley Manning’s revelations, some 20,000 to 30,000 troops would be in Iraq right now,” Ellsberg said. “That had been Obama’s plan.” Although they would not have been frontline troops, they would certainly have still been targeted, and scores, if not hundreds of them would have died, just in Obama’s remaining time in office. All those American lives were indirectly saved by Private Manning.

Manning’s revelations of Tunisian corruption and US knowledge and complicity also helped to fuel the Arab Spring – another obviously beneficial outcome, even if the US under Obama was largely incapable of sharing in the benefits. But whose fault was that?

If Obama had actively aligned himself with King, rather than passively aligning with those who stood against him, then he would have sought to heed King’s own words from the anti-war speeches of his last year of life, speeches like “Beyond Vietnam“, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam“, and “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“. Words like:

The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just”.

With words like these in mind, Obama would certainly not have shrunk from admitting the United States’ mistakes, or from trying to make amends, for he would have known that it was folly to expect others to go first, where we ourselves were unwilling to lead. And so, he would have admitted our history of war crimes, rather than continuing to cover it up – and prosecuting Manning for thwarting his ongoing coverup.

He would have withdrawn far more rapidly from both Iraq and Afghanistan, knowing full well that the US has long been creating more enemies in both countries than it can ever destroy. And he would have immediately turned his attention to systemic injustices and grievances whose lack of resolution fuels endless waves of mutual anger, fear, hatred, and resentment.

Chief among these would surely be the occupation of Palestine and the lack of a Palestinian state. In 2002, the Arab League presented a plan for resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict – a plan that guaranteed Israel’s security and its right to exist, as part of its overall final agreement. A President Obama inspired by King’s vision would have made support for the Arab League Peace Plan the keystone of his Middle East policy.

Of course, such a President Obama is an entirely fictional character. Nothing remotely like him actually exists. Except, of course, for Private Manning.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he’s worked since 2002. He’s also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg