The Common Good

Why I Support President Obama's Decision on Libya

I believe deeply in the power of nonviolence, first as a Christian, and second as one committed to seeing the principles of human dignity, freedom, and justice advanced throughout the world. So when the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt were empowered by amazing scenes of determined nonviolent resistance to dictatorial power, and when that power crumbled, I was thrilled. And then, when I learned the leaders were inspired by the writings of those like Gene Sharp, whose theories of nonviolent change I had first encountered when I worked for Senator Mark Hatfield in the 1970s, I was filled with amazement and hope.

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So when the uprising in Libya encountered brutal repression, and the regime's ugly violence was met by counter-violence, it felt like this fresh dynamic sweeping the Arab world was now turning back to the age old violent cycles of an eye for an eye. Still, I was gripped by the pictures of engineers, teachers, and technicians all suddenly willing to risk their lives against the savagery of a 40-year tyranny.

Many politically progressive voices quickly condemned President Obama's decision to galvanize a coalition and intervene dramatically to halt Gadhafi's advance into Benghazi nine days ago. And my instinct to distrust the use of U.S. military power in the Arab world wanted to do the same. But I couldn't.

I'm no fan of the just war theory. This is mainly because when I've seen it applied, it tries to paint a patina of justice around military action that ends up being just a war. But I see something different here. First, a genuine foundation of international support, expressed in a consensus through the United Nations, emerged to halt Gadhafi's brutality against his own citizens. Second, the specter of human slaughter was not rhetorical, but real. Third, clearly focused military action, supported even by the Arab League, prevented a massive and vengeful killing of the innocents.

Listening to President Obama last night, I found myself respecting the actions he has taken. I think, in fact, that it meets his carefully defined conditions and goals for the use of military force in the speech he gave when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Furthermore, he is attempting to make a difficult, but necessary, distinction between the military protection of civilians as opposed to a military effort for regime change -- keeping the use of military power within restrained purposes, and still relying wherever possible on nonmilitary means to reach a desired political end.

I still believe that the hope for the future of Arab societies is found in the inspiring movements of nonviolent change, which are not simply changing regimes, but transforming political culture. And I still recoil at the videogame-like images of tanks and armed personnel carriers being obliterated by remote smart bombs. Further, I know how easily the turn to violence, for even the best of reasons, can lead to a self-justifying downward cycle of unintended consequences. Yet, in this case, when the choices available do seem restricted to watching certain human slaughter or restraining evil intentions using internationally supported military power, I understand and support the choice which President Obama has made.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America.

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