President Obama’s Lonely Walk to the Situation Room

Posted: October 25, 2009 in Uncategorized
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Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit

“It is a blasphemy to say non-violence can be practiced only by individuals and never by nations which are composed of individuals.” –M.K. Gandhi

On September 8, 2009, President Obama sat with a group of students to answer their questions. A student named Lilly asked him who he would have dinner with if he could have any guest, dead or alive. Here’s the full transcript of the exchange. From the Boston Globe:

STUDENT: Hi. I’m Lilly. And if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Dinner with anyone dead or alive? Well, you know, dead or alive, that’s a pretty big list. (Laughter.) You know, I think that it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine. Now, it would probably be a really small meal because — (laughter) — he didn’t eat a lot. But he’s somebody who I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. King, so if it hadn’t been for the non-violent movement in India, you might not have seen the same non-violent movement for civil rights here in the United States. He inspired César Chávez, and he — and what was interesting was that he ended up doing so much and changing the world just by the power of his ethics, by his ability to change how people saw each other and saw themselves — and help people who thought they had no power realize that they had power, and then help people who had a lot of power realize that if all they’re doing is oppressing people, then that’s not a really good exercise of power.

So I’m always interested in people who are able to bring about change, not through violence, not through money, but through the force of their personality and their ethical and moral stances. And that’s somebody that I’d love to sit down and talk to.

The same day the president opined about his admiration for nonviolent luminaries Gandhi, King and Chavez, Afghan insurgents in Kunar Province killed Petty Officer 3rd Class James R. Layton, Gunnery Sergeant Edwin Wayne Johnson, Jr., 1st Lieutenant Michael E. Johnson and Staff Sergeant Aaron M. Kenefick. At least 253 U.S. soldiers died so far in 2009 in Afghanistan, and between January and August of this year, U.S forces and their opponents killed 1561 civilians. We don’t have estimates of how many “Taliban” the U.S. and allies killed. Before President Obama answered Lilly’s question, he’d increased U.S. force levels in Afghanistan from 30,100 to 50,700, and as he answered he was considering up to 80,000 more.

In that context, it really takes some nerve to pontificate to school children about the importance of Gandhi and nonviolence. It’s a little like being lectured about vegetarianism by the local butcher. If you line his words up next to his actions as president, the implicit message is, “Sure, nonviolence is great, but c’mon–this is the real world.”

President Obama employed a similar tactic during the 2008 campaign. Knowing the importance of the “Christian vote,” President Obama used the Sermon on the Mount to explain his non-reactionary position on homosexual unions (a perfectly valid use of the text, as far as I’m concerned), but whenever he had the opportunity to posture as the “tough Democrat” on foreign policy and “national defense” (what a great euphemism for a global network of 700+ military installations) he promptly forgot about all that “love your enemy” business. Again, “c’mon…this is the real world. Nations can’t operate like that.”

Gandhi called that kind of thinking, “blasphemy.” Jesus’ radical call to self-sacrificing love for enemies was addressed not only to individuals, but to his nation, which was well into a debate about how to react to the Roman occupation (it’s not a coincidence, in my opinion, that we date the writing of the Gospel of Mark roughly to the year the Roman/Jewish war ended in Jerusalem’s destruction. There’s quite a bit of allusion to onrushing events that you can spot if you know your history.). I’m sure Jesus, Gandhi, King and Chavez would be surprised to learn that their worlds were ethereal ethical utopias, what with their Pontius Pilates, General Smutses, Bull Connors and exploitative corporate agribusinesses.

Dr. King in particular might have been alarmed at how the president configures the place of the Sermon on the Mount in his ethics. During the 2008 campaign, President Obama named Reinhold Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers. Niebuhr was a fallen pacifist. A former chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Niebuhr abandoned his pacifism and pushed for the United States to enter World War II. His Moral Man and Immoral Society launched broadsides against Christian pacifism. Niebuhr asserted that Jesus taught nonresistance, not nonviolent resistance, and that as such nonviolence was not biblical. Nonviolence, on the other hand, left all force in the hands of those who would use it without scruples. (In this way, Niebuhr erased his own attempt at subtlety–if nonviolent resistance leaves all force in the hands of the unscrupulous, then it’s practically indistinguishable from nonresistance.) Dr. King summarized Niebuhr’s challenge in the following way:

[H]e argued that there was no intrinsic moral difference between violent and nonviolent resistance. The social consequences of the two methods were different, he contended, but the differences were in degree rather than kind. Later Niebuhr began emphasizing the irresponsibility of relying on nonviolent resistance when there was no ground for believing that it would be successful in preventing the spread of totalitarian tyranny. It could only be successful, he argued, if the groups against whom the resistance was taking place had some degree of moral conscience, as was the case in Gandhi’s struggle against the British. Niebuhr’s ultimate rejection of pacifism was based primarily on the doctrine of man. He argued that pacifism failed to do justice to the reformation doctrine of justification by faith, substituting or it a sectarian perfectionism which believes “that divine grace actually lifts man out of the sinful contradictions of history and establishes him above the sins of the world.” — The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 26.

Niebuhr, King said, distorted the position of pacifism into passivity induced by a naive trust in the power of love. “My study of Gandhi,” he wrote, “convinced me that pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference.” King rejected the main thrusts of Niebuhr’s arguments:

True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart. — The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 27.

Though Niebuhr’s warnings about the tendency of groups to immorality and the fallen nature of humanity provide valuable brakes on theological utopianism, he was ultimately proved wrong on many points. Theologian Walter Wink later provided a compelling exegesis, widely accepted across the theological spectrum, of the Sermon on the Mount that showed that Jesus’ “nonresistance” was actually a loving, strong resistance not only to personal violence of everyday life but also to the systemic violence of the Roman occupation. He thought that the mass movement nurtured by King would provoke a backlash that would delay rather than hasten major victories for civil rights, not understanding that nonviolence accounts for the backlash and turns it against the attacker. He could not comprehend, as explained in this excellent audio piece, a world where East Germany, South African apartheid and other oppressive regimes would be toppled by nonviolent mass action. Studies of 20th century resistance movements show that, contrary to Niebuhr’s assertions, nonviolent resistance is far more effective than violent resistance against oppression.

Despite the fact that he used the Sermon on the Mount as his shield against Christian biblical assaults on abortion and gay unions, President Obama shelves it when it comes to foreign policy. Niebuhr would certainly have approved. Presumably, Obama is comfortable with Niebuhr’s treatment of the sermon because of the requirements of democratic government for the faithful to, as he put it,

“translate…concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values…I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will.”

Fine, fair enough. If all he had to go on was a command from God, one could accept the President’s reluctance to use executive power to force an unconvinced population to go on his religious journey with him. But that’s not all he has to go on, and he knows it. The people he held up as luminaries when answering Lilly’s question proved conclusively that the evil in human groups and institutions that so concerned Niebuhr can be confronted and beaten back without violence. By holding up Jesus, Gandhi, King and Chavez as heroes while rejecting their philosophies in the dirty business of governance, President Obama puts them on pedestals out of reach of us mere mortals. But that’s never where they were in life. They were right down here in the muck with us. And yet, despite their victories, President Obama stands with Reinhold Niebuhr in rejecting their method of confronting human evil as unfit for the real world.

Even so, the President should choose his philosophical friends more carefully. Niebuhr may have been a supporter of World War II, when totalitarianism was on the march, but he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam war, and the latter bears much more resemblance to the war in Afghanistan than the former. He was disgusted by the presumption of the omnipotence of military might displayed by the U.S. foreign policy of his day. According to Gary Dorrien:

When Johnson sent the Marines into the Dominican Republic the following year, Niebuhr strongly opposed the invasion, arguing that force could only be creative–and not resented by its purported beneficiaries–when it was the “tool of a legitimate authority in the community.”

He argued that it was a mistake to make Vietnam an object of anticommunist containment, “when we are in fact dealing with the nationalism of a small nation in Asia.” … “We are making South Vietnam into an American colony by transmuting a civil war into one in which Americans fight Asians.”

One can almost hear the accompanying footsteps of Niebuhr falling away as President Obama strides toward another escalation in Afghanistan.With the Afghan election debacle ongoing, now only a test to see how the Kabul cartel of drug lords, warlords and human rights abusers will be configured, there’s no way that American military force in Afghanistan can be seen as a “tool of a legitimate authority in the community.” With the Afghan insurgency nearly quadrupling in size in the last few years while the hardcore religious extremist share of the insurgency declining, its clear that our main opponent is now Afghan nationalism (hey, you wanted it, you got it). With recruiting drying up for major components of the Afghan national security forces, it’s clear that a major troop increase will even further transmute the conflict in Afghanistan into one where Westerners fight Afghans and Pakistanis. First Jesus, then Gandhi, King, and Chavez, now Niebuhr; the President parts company from each of his supposed heroes on his way to the Situation Room.

If anything, Niebuhr was a realist who demanded we take the world for what it is, not what we would like it to be. Let us follow him in that, at least: We are in the middle of a major economic crisis, brought on in large part by massive, deficit fueled military excess in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each troop we place in Afghanistan costs us $1 million per year. Each gallon of gas expended in Afghanistan costs the U.S. $400 due to the difficulties in getting it there. The so-called civilian surge has been a joke. Absent massive and monstrous doses of violence, the U.S. will not excise the Taliban from Afghan national life. The pretenses to transforming Afghan culture through our continued presence, especially with respect to women’s rights, are similarly laughable. Long-term, costly counterinsurgency in Afghanistan thus commits one of the worst national sins from a Niebuhrian perspective: hubris.

Before he next walks into the Situation Room, President Obama should take a moment to consult the Savior he’s locked out of the deliberations and whisper to him Niebuhr’s most famous words:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

  1. Sporkmaster says:

    Except that there seems to be no intention to do any follow up as far as when and if the Troops leave. In fact it seems that more people are after the funding then concerned about the people of Afghanistan.

    We cannot let them win. Another bloody, trillion-dollar Lone Ranger fiasco will definitively end any hope for health care, employment, education, the environment, a decent life for our children.

    Not to mention that the Taliban threatens new attacks on the run-off election.

    Also a related article to NATO.

  2. […] He posited an essentially warlike nature to man not borne out by science. For a person who frequently cites King and Gandhi, President Obama showed a stunning ignorance of history and of nonv…. His self-justifying redefinition of the dreams of King and Gandhi were offensive and dishonest. […]

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