King 1963: I have a dream. Obama 2013: I have a drone

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. Today, fifty years on, in tribute to the great civil rights leader, the US marks Martin Luther King Jr Day with a federal holiday in his name.

Today also sees Barack Obama take to the steps of the city’s Capitol Building for his second public inauguration as President of the United States of America. There is no escaping the echoes from half a century ago, not least because Obama has chosen to use MLK’s bible, alongside Lincoln’s, for his swearing in ceremony.

With such powerful symbolism on show, one can’t help but draw comparisons between Obama and King. If some see Obama, as the country’s first black president, as the realisation of at least part of King’s dream, many also see Obama’s record as a war leader at odds with the nonviolent vision of King.

While King had a dream, Obama has a drone.

Under Obama, the US government has relied increasingly on drones to kill terror suspects. According to reports, more than 2,500 people have been killed in over 300 drone strikes since Obama took office. US drone attacks have more than doubled overall in Pakistan during the Obama administration, and drones are also now being used far afield, from Yemen to Libya.

Of course, some of those killed likely have been “bad guys”. But that’s not really the point; at least, not if you believe in the rule of law.

As AI USA has noted: “We know that among those killed were some who were essentially accused in secret of crimes or other wrongdoing but in respect of whom no efforts were made to bring them to justice in a court of law. We know that there were others about whom the government had no specific information but who may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. We know that among those killed have been men of different ages, women, and children. We also know that every one of the people the government has killed, whoever they were and whatever they may have been believed to have done, had the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of his or her life.”

Obama’s administration has continued to rely on his predecessor’s “global war” legal theory that treats the entire world as a battlefield between the USA and armed groups, on which lethal force may potentially be used virtually anywhere at any time without regard to human rights standards. News that there are now moves afoot to allow the drone killing campaign to continue without restrictions in Pakistan is deeply worrying.

Such an approach is not only of concern in its own right, it also weakens the credibility of the USA in advocating for respect for human rights by other states and sets dangerous precedents for other states to adopt to justify their own unlawful killings, so eroding further the foundations of the international legal framework which protect us all.

President Obama was granted the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize more for what he might deliver, than for what he had accomplished. He has four short years left to build a legacy of peace and respect for human rights which would merit the award.

He could start by ensuring that his use of drones comes into line with international law.

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  • A President can do more in his second term as he does not have to worry about re-election and the fact that Obama is moving on Gun Control is an example of this. If a school shooting had happened in September, it would have been a much more difficult issue in a campaign.
    Likewise if he had used Dr Kings Bible (and I presume he didnt) four years ago, then it would have stirred up the usual right wing hostility.
    But I dont think there is any point in being disappointed in Obama for the drone.
    Too many of us got caught up in the historic moment of a black President…even McCain and Bush realised the import and there is no denying that it is a watershed moment in American history.
    But some of the blame surely should be attached to those who were over-enthusiastic about his election. And that Nobel Peace Prize thing is the classic example. An American President will primarily act in the American interest….as he sees it.

  • David Crookes

    Good posting: thanks! Does anyone recall the hysterical weeping woshippers at Mr Obama’s first inauguration?

    “A new age has dawned.” Of course it hadn’t.

    The Nobel Peace Prize is getting rather smarmy.

    ‘Deep’ USA government policy is as-you-were in many respects. Mr Cameron seems to promising us more of the same today. It all sounds to me like the never-ending state of war that Orwell imagined.

  • pauluk

    Obama is a drone!

  • pauluk

    Obama is quick to claim ties with King, but would King approve of Obama’s philosophy or policies? I honesty doubt it. Never mind Assassination-by-Drone, Obama also supports the killing of over a million unborn American babies every year! Pastor King would have a hard time with that one!

  • tacapall

    Wake up to reality Obama will do as he is told to do, rubber stamp policy that is in the interests of the corporate elite. human beings are collateral damage in the desire for global dominance. It used to be called bringing Christianity to the pagans and savages, but today its called the war on terror, all the old hands seem to be jumping on the bandwagon, but its modern day colonialism in the interests of the few. They all use drones to kill people, almost every country involved, to them its the cheapest way to get rid of the local natives.

  • Makhno

    I saw the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in Belfast around the time of Obama’s first inauguration and someone in the audience asked him what difference it would make having a black president. LKJ’s reply:”as the first black President of the United States, Barack Obama will be…the President of the United States”. Prescient words at a time when people were gorging on the symbolism. Yes, it is/was symbolic, but isn’t part of the USA’s problem is that it has too much ‘symbolism’?

  • JoeBryce

    I think he has thus far stopped, and seems likely to continue to prevent, an Israeli attack on Iran, which would have drawn in China and Russia and risked nuclear war. That seems a pretty major plus.

  • Many people seem to think that an American President has enormous power. That simply isn’t true. The Framers of their constitution went out of their way to ensure that no one could dominate. Real power lies in Congress.

  • To add to that, the individual States also yield a lot of the power.
    I recommend de Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America which, although written more than 150 years ago, still is a good description of the division of powers.

  • tacapall

    “Many people seem to think that an American President has enormous power. That simply isn’t true.”

    Thats absolutely true Joe, all the ones who tried to were assinated, congress is no more than a printing machine for laws that benefit the few the same few who pull the strings of Obama. Meanwhile in the real world –

    Also on Sunday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that Paris’ goal in the African country “is the total reconquest of Mali,” adding, “We will not leave any pockets” of resistance.

  • New Yorker

    President Obama had a great inauguration today.

    He will pursue AQ by the best means and most here approve of such methods.

    I believe the President will have a good second term and the nation will be better off because of it.

  • USA

    He is more likely to be successful with immigration reform than with gun control.

  • abucs

    I also agree with Joe that no political leader outside a dictatorship holds real control. In western democracies power has to be shared and agreed. That is why when there are deep divisions not a lot can be done politically. This would be one of the reasons Obama asked for support across the divide in his speech. The idea that the U.S. President is the most powerful man on the planet does not really make sense.

    But i would just caution that those that forgive Obama for many of his policies (like doubling the number of drone attacks) because he is working in a conglomerate of power should also give Bush the same slack.

    Also, the giving of the Nobel peace price to Obama for nothing more than being black and the president of the United States takes away the little credibility that the Nobel Prizes had left for me.