Day after Escalating Climate Damaging War, Obama Cites “Beyond Vietnam” on Climate Urgency

In a column at Salon, I compare two executive actions President Obama took this week: escalating the war against ISIL (and expanding it to “the Khorasan group”), and including climate resilience as one consideration in foreign aid projects.

The war escalation makes it quite clear that Obama believes he has expansive Executive Authority. Which makes it all the more pathetic that he’s still piddling around with using that authority to respond to a far more urgent threat, climate change.

Perhaps more appalling, however, is how he rolled these out. The day after escalating a war that will burn vast amounts of fossil fuel at a speech at the UN Climate Summit, Obama invoked Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech to describe the urgency of the problem he is largely ignoring.

In his climate speech, the president rather ironically invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “Beyond Vietnam.” In it, the civil rights leader described how we did then what we still do now in the Middle East: “[W]e increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support.” The day after Obama escalated a war on the other side of the world, he cited King’s radically anti-war speech to invoke the urgency of fighting climate change, not terrorism. “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now,” the original speech went. “[T]here is such a thing as being too late,” were the words the president cited.

And yet, having invoked that urgency, the president took executive action that — compared with his executive actions that expanded a war —  was timid and inadequate to the climate threat facing the nation and the globe.

The president clearly believes he has expansive authorities to protect the country. Given that’s the case, why isn’t he heeding Dr. King’s call to meet the urgency of the moment with appropriate action?

Obama is clearly making a choice to use his Executive Authority to respond to less urgent threats.

And all the while he’s invoking the words of King to put a gloss on his own inaction.

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20 replies
  1. Betty says:

    The juxtaposition of the speech on warmongering and the speech invoking MLK’s anti-war speech is making my head hurt.

    • BiasedReporter says:

      I completely agree! “the fierce urgency of now” is Obama’s favorite quote, but he ignores Martin Luther King’s legacy of fighting militarism and poverty as well as racism.

  2. blueba says:

    With Brazil rejecting the forest preservation part of any new agreement and Indonesia continuing to look the other way to illegal logging and India totally rejecting any sort of emission mitigation and the US having such a milquetoast approach – how can anyone expect any effective action? LOOK OUT BELOW!

  3. Don Bacon says:

    BHO, who first created AfPak out of the stupid Afghan war, killing kids in yet another country, isn’t fit to quote selected parts MLK and not others.

    . . . And I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances. . .

  4. Peterr says:

    Obama and his administration has real problems with understanding the words of Martin Luther King Jr. Jeh Johnson, then the DOD’s chief lawyer, tried to make the case that King would have approved of today’s wars — and he failed miserably.
    LGBT activists understand King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” but Obama didn’t, as he cited in in trying to justify telling the LGBT community that they were pushing him too hard to move too fast. FAIL.
    Edward Snowden’s revelations demonstrated the truth of MLK’s description of nonviolent direct action, laid out in that same letter: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” Obama, on the other hand, seems content to belittle those who criticize him, not realizing that they have changed the debate in ways he cannot contain.
    Obama is quick to give King lip service, but after each speech Obama gives, I can’t help but think that Obama has never read King for himself.
    Has he read memos about King? Yes.
    Has he read talking points that speak of King? Yes.
    But has he read King in all his nuance and power, and pondered the meaning and depth of King’s words? Sadly, I have to conclude the answer is “no.”

    • TarheelDem says:

      Poor guys. They all think they have to live up to the expectation that all black people are Martin Luther King. They also think that a quote from King will deflect the anger from the black community against their policies. “They look like us and know our experience” has been a seductive trap. The folks in Ferguson feel rightly betrayed by Holder’s sudden resignation.

    • P J Evans says:

      He’s too young to remember King as anything other than the civil rights icon; the actual man doesn’t register. I don’t think he learned much about the civil rights movement in school or from his grandparents. Also, he’s a Reagan Republican: civil rights aren’t on his radar, except as they apply to him and his family.

  5. ess emm says:

    Obama should not have the Executive Authority to fight either war.

    Decrying his “piddling around” on climate change action is beside the point. I know this is not what you believe, but it makes it sound like you’re in favor of expansive, non-democratic expression of authority when it’s for issues you deem more urgent.

  6. TarheelDem says:

    The totality of the threats to which President Obama responds comes from the members of Congress. In that context, bombing Syria is more urgent than climate change. And acting through executive action on climate change is a bigger risk than bombing and failing in Syria.

    Corrupt political cultures force irrationality to the fore.

  7. please says:

    This highlights my disgust with B. He traffics on the legacy of King, twisting it and petrifying it while fully cognizant that his very trajectory depended on the very foundations King worked upon that he is now dismantling.

    King has already been largely reduced to a martyr and his actual message perverted but for a warmonger and unmistakably, another black man, to repeatedly use King as though the very people who will recognize those quotes will not also recognize the perversion is appalling.

    What kind of legacy is that? He debases himself so much, for what? To curry favor among fools?

  8. ArizonaBumblebeeper says:

    Full disclosure: I did not vote for President Obama in either 2008 or 2012. In 2008 I voted for the Libertarian Party candidate and in 2012 for the Green Party candidate. I have always felt conflicted in my views of the man and his presidency. While I fully recognize the constraints in which he operates, I’m increasingly of the view that he deliberately and cynically deceived the American people about who he was. He told us he would bring hope, change, and transparency to the federal government and a fresh approach to our relations with other countries of the world. He has done none of this. When I look back at some of his comments while running for president in 2008, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Cornel West recently wrote a provocative piece about our president in Salon, and I strongly recommend it if you haven’t read the article. If progressives thought that President Obama would turn America away from its troubled past over the last half century (assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, etc.) and put the country on a new path, they were wrong.

  9. prostratedragon says:

    When I can think of something to say beyond the “Lacrimosa” I will. Meanwhile count me among the sickened.

    (Well, there is this note: as a misreading of what’s sometimes called “the Riverside speech,” this would be of horrifying magnitude that symbolizes the disasterous choice of priorities for action, but unfortunately I doubt that we have a simple, if tragic, cognitive problem here. And even as I try to type, the very words “horror” and “tragedy” are being robbed from the discourse by a couple of chirping fools on the radio who are trying to decide whether the president’s speech was “Niebuhrian” or “muscular.”)

  10. Don Bacon says:

    I took Obama’s “legal authority” to do Libya and changed a few words to beef up his assault on global warming.
    I hope Obama appreciates that he DOES have the legal authority to act especially when a Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General says so. Hey, it worked before. After all, it’s a country of laws. It’ll work!
    Then we get Kerry to proclaim: We came, we saw, and the worst effects of climate change died. Here we go:
    The President has the constitutional authority to direct the use of US governmental assets in response to climate change because he could reasonably determine that such use of force was in the national interest.
    Prior congressional approval was not constitutionally required to use US force in the limited operations under consideration. . .
    Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General

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