What would Dr. King say?

The recent celebration of Martin Luther King Day reminded us that it was almost 40 years ago, on April 4, 1967, that Dr. King made a historic speech at Riverside Church in New York City in which he stated for the first time his opposition to the war in Vietnam. It was a turning point in the anti-war movement, just as King’s 1963 March on Washington speech had been a turning point in the civil-rights movement.

If King were still alive, what would he say about the American occupation of Iraq? We can get some idea from that 1967 speech. Vietnam, he said then, was consuming American troops and money “like some demonic, destructive suction tube,” even as it was inflicting horrific suffering on the Vietnamese people and laying waste to America’s standing in the world. Sound familiar?

Once again America is ensnared in an unnecessary and unwinnable war. The stakes are different, of course. Iraq and the Middle East are far more important to America than Vietnam and Southeast Asia were, because of our addiction to oil. But it’s safe to say that King would have opposed this war from the beginning, as he opposed all militarism and killing.

Were King alive, we believe he’d now urge that America do all it could to minimize further damage to the people of Iraq. He’d recognize that, while we must eventually withdraw, we must do so carefully, making every effort to forestall further sectarian violence while making it clear to the Iraqi people that their future is up to them.

And we must reassess our responsibility to Iraq. We must be prepared, when we withdraw, to provide asylum to the thousands of Iraqis who worked for the military, the embassy and American contractors. We also must contribute generously to a United Nations organization to care for Iraqi refugees. And we should try mightily to restrain Iraq’s neighbors from intervening in the Iraqi civil war.

These measures will be hard to swallow. But, as Dr. King would have told us, they’re the right thing to do.