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Obama on Libya: What Would MLK Say?

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President Obama on Monday said he would "never hesitate" to use the U.S. military "unilaterally" to defend "interests" and "values," including "maintaining the flow of commerce." Fear of exactly that led the founders of this republic to give Congress the exclusive power to declare war. James Madison did not believe any single individual could be trusted with such power:

"The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast, ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace."

In 1928, the U.S. Senate ratified the Kellogg-Briand Pact, banning all war. The Senate tacked on an exception for self-defense. That ban remains the Supreme Law of the Land under Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, and Libya did not attack the United States. No one, not even on Fox News, has claimed that Libya even contemplated attacking the United States. Nor would Americans consider the launching of hundreds of missiles onto U.S. soil something other and gentler than war. The U.S. government, 10 years ago, declared terrorists crashing airplanes into buildings to be an act of war on behalf of a nation that none of those terrorists were from.

In 1973, Congress legislated exceptions to the Constitution's placement of the power to declare war solely in the hands of the Congress:

"The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to
(1) a declaration of war,
(2) specific statutory authorization, or
(3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces."

Now, it's not hard to obtain specific statutory authorization. Just shout "terrorism!" and ask Congress to pass a bill. President Obama chose not to. And it's certainly not hard to get U.S. troops or territories attacked or to claim they've been attacked. But nobody has so much as claimed that Libya had any interest in attacking the U.S. empire in any way. The fact that Obama's letter to Congress last week pretending to comply with the War Powers Act failed to actually report all the information required (such as how long this action would last) is beside the point. The War Powers Act (quoted above) does not apply because none of the three conditions above has been met. Obama's action in Libya, if left unchallenged, establishes the power of any future president to bomb any country. Obama's claim on Monday to have consulted Congress doesn't change this. Nor does it matter whether we call bombing Libya a war or a surgical humanitarian intervention; if Congress -- the full Congress -- doesn't authorize it, it's unconstitutional.

Obama gave a lovely speech Monday evening from the point of view of anyone unfamiliar with anything he was talking about. Gadaffi, we learned, has been a tyrant for more than four decades. And the United States, the President neglected to mention, was supporting and arming him for many of those years, including right up until the moment it switched sides. The U.S. government switched sides, or "intervened," Obama explained, because Gadaffi attacked his people. As if the United States isn't backing and arming dozens of governments that attack their own people! As if the United States isn't attacking people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq!

Obama replied to this predictable objection, saying that just because we usually do not halt the killing of civilians is no reason not to do so in Libya where, he claimed, the United States had a unique ability to stop the killing. But I've never heard anyone actually argue that we should permit murder on one occasion because we cannot stop it everywhere. I have, however, seen the inconsistency pointed to as reason to doubt the U.S. government's stated motivations. That's the "Obama Doctrine" -- we'll justify wars as humanitarian even though something completely unhumanitarian clearly motivates them. Obama's is a propaganda doctrine. What exactly is unique about the United States' ability to stop the killing of Libyans? Surely the United States has a unique ability to stop arming dictators in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Surely the United States has a unique ability to stop killing civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. That opportunity might be even more unique. The United States could stop killing the civilians it is killing in Afghanistan by simply stopping killing them. The decision to stop arming Gadaffi was an extraordinary opportunity, although identical to an opportunity we are foregoing in several other nations in that region (a region in which the United States is already "intervened" everywhere). It's what came almost immediately afterwards that people are objecting to.

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Obama claimed on Monday to have tried to end violence without using force. He claimed to be acting in a coalition. He claimed to be transfering the mission to NATO to reduce the risks and costs. But where is the evidence that "force" was the only way to oppose "violence"? And does it hurt less or kill less if the violence is called "force"? No serious effort was made to organize diplomatic pressure for negotiations, to train nonviolent activists, or to communicate to Gadaffi or members of his military that negotiation was in their interest. What if the United States had announced the withdrawal of its military from all nations of the world, its commitment to no longer sell or give weapons to anyone, its intention to fund the training of nonviolent activists and truly democratic movements and governments, its decision to join the International Criminal Court, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the General Assembly resolution on Permanent Sovereignty Over Natural Resources, the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing, and Training of Mercenaries, the Landmine Ban Treaty, the Cluster Munitions Treaty, the Treaty on Preventing an Arms Race in Outer Space, and all of the other standards of law and decency on which the United States is a hold-out?  If putting those words on paper sounds crazy, while blowing up buildings sounds rational, we're in real trouble.

Bringing in foreign military attacks is the ideal way to rally Gadaffi's troops and entrench him in his position. You don't hear about any defections anymore. And the coalition is the United States. NATO is the United States. The U.S. military is larger than all others in the world combined. Even the homegrown Libyan rebels are led by an American-made CIA asset. Obama promised to give $33 billion in frozen Libyan assets to the Libyan people. But which Libyan people? All of them, or a chosen puppet? And how has such puppeteering worked out in Iraq and Afghanistan thus far?

Obama wants Gadaffi overthrown with non-military means, he says. But he practices, preaches, and produces only violent means. A downed U.S. pilot, Obama said on Monday, was met by friends in Libya. The President did not mention that those friends were reportedly met with fire from a U.S. helicopter that shot first and asked questions later, reportedly killing six Libyans intent on helping the U.S. pilot.  Military attacks make nonviolence less, not more, likely to succeed.  Nonviolence needs to move Gadaffi's soldiers to abandon him.  Violence moves them to stand by him and go down fighting.


When President Obama speaks on why he needed to unconstitutionally bomb Libya, I keep in the back of my head what Martin Luther King, Jr., would have said - and done.

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When President Barack Obama joined the ranks of Henry Kissinger and the other gentle souls who have received Nobel Peace Prizes, he did something that I don't think anyone else had previously done in a Peace Prize acceptance speech. He not only said that a previous recipient (King) had been wrong, but he argued for war:

"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 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.'"But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [King's and Gandhi's] 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. 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 may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history". So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace."

But, you know, I've never found any opponent of war who didn't believe there was evil in the world. After all, we oppose war because it is evil. Did Martin Luther King, Jr., stand idle in the face of threats? Are you serious? Did King oppose protecting and defending people? He worked for that very goal! Obama claims that his only choices are war or nothing. He also likes to claim that war was the last resort, but no other resorts are ever considered, and he switched straight from backing Gadaffi's government to bombing it. The reason people know the names Gandhi (who was never given a Nobel Peace Prize) and King is that they suggested other options and proved that those other approaches could work. This fundamental disagreement cannot be smoothed over. Either war is the only option or it is not -- in which case we must consider the alternatives.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)

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