My first reaction is to put it all in the context of the fact that MLK's anti-war position was rooted in his adherence to non-violent resistance. I can't help but wonder if these critics make the same commitment. Are they suggesting that they are against all violence under any circumstances - as MLK was? Or is it just this particular form of violence?
While MLK is revered by almost everyone today as the father of the Civil Rights Movement, history tells us that not everyone involved in that struggle joined him in his commitment to non-violence. As a matter of fact, there are whole schools of thought that suggest that MLK's non-violence was aided in its success by the alternative of groups like the the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers. As you know, some of the most quoted words from Malcolm X are "...by any means necessary."
And so we must start with a recognition that, while we all admire the legacy of MLK, even his most avid supporters know that to simply suggest that he would have spoken out against President Obama's actions in the war on al Qaeda does not mean that he would have found 100% agreement on that position.
The President himself acknowledged this back in 2009 in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: 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.In other words, he was acknowledging that King would have disagreed with him. And he gives us a hint about the conversation they might have had. President Obama's response would have been grounded in the Niebuhrian conflict of having - as President - to deal with the world as it is rather than the world as we want it to be. I imagine it is a conversation Barack Obama has had in his head many times. What a fascinating thing that is to imagine!
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. 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 work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's 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. 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.
Its interesting to note that many of President Obama's critics seem to rely on an appeal to authority and assume that no black President (or his supporters) should ever take a position that is different from what MLK would have championed. I will say that I tend to lean more towards King's position of non-violent resistance. But this is a deeply complex moral question that is degraded by a simple appeal to authoritarianism - even if that authority is the Rev. Martin Luther King.
But beyond the moral question, the biggest difference I see between King's approach and Obama critics is the audience they speak to. Whether its Cornell West or Tavis Smiley or Glenn Greenwald or David Sirota - the critique is always leveled at President Obama. In contrast, I suggest that you read Rev. Martin Luther King's seminal speech against the war in Vietnam given in 1967 when Lyndon Johnson was the president. He didn't call Johnson a "war criminal" (even though the charges might have been valid) or accuse him of hypocrisy/mendacity. He doesn't even mention the president's name. That's because he wasn't speaking to politicians - not even the president. He was calling out the American people. For example:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.What a powerful statement that is as relevant today as it was in 1967! On that question of values and morality, both King and Obama agree.
Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."...
Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power, to complete this work without something more -- and that's the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there's something irreducible that we all share.