Toward a Coherent Presidency
“We must pursue peace through peaceful means… in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere.”
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.; The Trumpet of Conscience
“I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own… structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.”
-- Barack Obama; Dreams from My Father
Cohere. It is not a common word, and it’s an uncommon leader who understands the meaning of it.
As a Harvard graduate, former constitutional law professor and civil rights attorney, President Obama may understand what it means better than any president we’ve ever had, perhaps even as well as that other great Nobel Peace Prize winner quoted above, Martin Luther King, Jr.
King spoke so eloquently and coherently about so many things that it’s sometimes hard to remember the real heart of his message. Fortunately, he crystallized that message for the world when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. The award, he said, represented “a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”
In other words, our means and ends should cohere. We should be coherent.
Barack Obama’s verbal and moral coherency became evident to a large segment of the electorate when he gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. Voters across the political spectrum bought into the “Change We Can Believe In” slogan when he made a bid for the White House because Obama continued to articulate a clear moral framework out of which decisions would be made if he was elected. In his inauguration address, he said that America must not shrink from its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
By pledging to close Guantanamo, eschewing torture and beginning the draw down of troops from Iraq, President Obama has begun to bring means and ends in line again; he has begun to make us a more coherent nation.
This is in stark contrast to the policies and actions of the former administration, which epitomized what sociologist Michael Mann calls incoherent imperialism. George Bush gave lip service to unity and peace but gained office with a strategy of divide-and-conquer. These same three words could be used to sum up his foreign policy during his two terms in office. Bush’s verbal incoherence often amused but his actions, by and large, were anything but funny. I never begrudged him that he often mispronounced nuclear – an easy word to bungle. What mattered most to me were his policies and actions with respect to the use of force, nuclear or otherwise.
Bush was far from our first incoherent president, however. In a 1967 sermon that came to be known as his Christmas Sermon on Peace, King reminded those gathered that most military geniuses throughout history – and most U.S. presidents – have talked of peace while waging war. President Johnson, King said, spoke eloquently of peace even as U.S. jets pummeled North Vietnam with bombs.
King believed lasting peace would only come when the world and its leaders embraced the nonviolent affirmation that ends and means must cohere. Destructive means, King said again and again, cannot bring about constructive ends. It’s a lesson President Obama should heed, especially as he considers a strategy shift in Afghanistan.
“Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force’.” King was not dreaming when he spoke those words, he was reflecting lucidly on how far strategic nonviolence had taken the civil rights movement in America, and before that how it had been used by Gandhi and his followers to expel the most powerful military power at the time, Great Britain, from India without the bloodbath so many expected.
At his inauguration in January, President Obama seemed to echo King’s famous sermon when he said, “…our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint….”
“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new,” said Obama. Is strategic nonviolence of the type wielded so successfully by the Indian people against the British, the Poles and Czechs against their Soviet overlords, the Filipinos against the Marcos regime, South African blacks against the brutal apartheid government, and Serbian students against Milosevic one of the instruments to which the president referred?
The instrument is really only new in the hands of American presidents, though a few have understood the principle behind it. President Lincoln, whom Obama says he seeks to emulate, did not have the examples of Gandhi and King to follow, but the words of those great men would have rung true to him. By ignoring the loud calls to punish the Southern states after the Confederacy’s surrender, Lincoln probably saved our nation from a second civil war. “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice,” he once told a friend.
Without such understanding, redemptive and creative goodwill toward all people – the nucleus of nonviolence – government of the people, by the people and for the people would have long ago perished from the earth. It remains the only means by which we will ensure that such government continues, spreads and endures, and the only means by which we will win the hearts and minds of our enemies and short-circuit the cycle of violence. Nonviolence, King said in his Nobel acceptance speech, was not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force.
All other means will ultimately backfire. We claimed victory in the “war to end all wars,” but that victory gave rise to Hitler and fascism. Even our military triumph in the so-called good war, World War II, spawned the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and many other bloody conflicts. Indeed, al Qaida and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sprang in large part from the fears, divisions and resentments resulting from WWII.
If the United States is to lead the world again, we must do it with soul force, not military force. The real emperor with no clothes was not, as some think, George Bush, but the myth at the heart of his presidency and so many other presidencies – the myth that might makes right and that violence is somehow redemptive. The opposite is true: right makes might. America’s greatness has always been rooted in its moral power.
By following King’s example, by ensuring that his actions cohere with his words, by trying wherever humanly possible to make means and ends cohere, and with a little creative translation on his part, President Obama could indeed help the U.S. lead the world into the new era of peace of which he spoke at his inauguration. Not only would that make him the most coherent president the United States has ever had, it would make him fully worthy of the peace prize that even he thinks he doesn’t yet deserve.
Or Obama could turn out to be like most presidents, viewing peace as a distant goal instead of the only means by which we can arrive at that goal. If so, his presidency will fall far short of its promise – and far short of the hopes the Nobel committee and billions of people around the world have placed in him.
As we face two wars, nuclear proliferation, global warming, global terrorism and global pandemics, the world needs a coherent American presidency like never before. But the fulfillment of King’s full dream of a world at peace with itself is not up to one person. We are all heirs to King and Gandhi’s legacy of nonviolent change. As President-elect Obama reminded us shortly before he took office, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, he can’t do it alone. We the people must co-lead.
So let us all commit today to make means and ends cohere in our own lives. And let us make it clear to all our leaders – including President Obama – that we expect the same from them. We expect coherency.