Violence in Libya

Protesters outside the White House urge Obama to help Libya. February 19, 2011.

Like every ethical person on the planet, I would love to see Muammar Gaddafi removed from power, his apparatus of violence and repression destroyed, and the current dictatorship replaced by a democratic movement. I believe that these are the motivations that have led President Obama to engage the United States in military action in Libya. So, yes, I’m glad he has helped create an international force to protect some of Libya’s people from the threats of murder that Gaddafi was starting to implement weeks ago.

But I have many doubts about this path. I don’t believe in violence as the way to achieve our reasonable and ethically justified goals.

I’ve watched too many times as the United States has stated reasonable goals to justify a military intervention that then became a slippery slope to indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians. I’ve watched as even President Obama, somebody whose fundamental decency I continue to believe in, uses violence when it seems to fit with his vision of what is politically smart for him, and in a way that is inconsistent with the values he stated in his talk to the nation on March 28, 2011, explaining the Libyan war.

If the president wants to save lives, he might immediately stop our war in Afghanistan and remove our troops. If the president wants to save lives, he might demand the end of repression in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Palestine, and talk about what economic sanctions he would use to accomplish those goals. The most remarkable feature of the current Arab uprisings is how determinedly nonviolent they have been. People say nonviolence doesn’t work as well as violence for bringing down brutal dictators, but it’s actually the other way around. It’s not just that violent uprisings put the power from the start in the hands of the military, compromising the chances that the successor regime will be democratic. It’s that violent protest prompts a dictator’s army to fight, while nonviolent protest often undermines that willingness. As Tikkun Contributing Editor Stephen Zunes wrote recently:

From the Philippines to East Germany, autocratic rulers facing nonviolent civil insurrections have ordered their troops to fire on unarmed crowds, only to have them refuse, forcing the dictatorships to fall. On January 14, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali declared a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than three people, threatening that “arms will be used if orders of security forces are not heeded.” In response, hundreds of thousands of Tunisians defied the regime, bravely marching upon the dreaded Interior Ministry and a general strike effectively shut down the country. When the head of the armed forces informed the president he would refuse to orders to attack nonviolent protesters, Ben Ali and his family then fled the country.

… In Libya, the protests were almost exclusively nonviolent during the first week of the uprising. It was during this period that the pro-democracy movement made the most gains, taking over most of the cities in the eastern part of the country. It was also during this period when most of the resignations of cabinet members and other important aides of Qaddafi, Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals and top military officers took place. Pilots deliberately crashed their planes, flew into exile and otherwise refused orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers defected or refused to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution.

It was when the rebellion took a more violent turn, however, that the revolution’s progress stalled and was soon reversed, which in turn led to the United States and its allies attacking Libya.

The world may legitimately wonder why the United States has given its most visible and dramatic support to a protest that turns violent, while neglecting to give equally strong but nonviolent support to the nonviolent protest movements. The Egyptian protesters especially needed that help early on; later, when the movement was clearly winning, the Obama administration did get off the fence, but Obama never called for Mubarak to go — not until he was gone. Failing to learn the lesson from that, the administration is being lukewarm in its support of nonviolent protests in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and is giving Israel a free pass on Palestine (as evidenced in the recent U.S. veto of a mildly worded United Nations Security Council resolution supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and reiterating the illegality of Israeli settlements in occupied territories).

I hear the critics’ response: “But right now, right at this moment, the president was faced with an emergency and he had to act, else too many people would have been killed.”

Yes, I think that is probably true, and that is why I don’t condemn Obama or suspect his motives. I believe he is a fundamentally decent person!

But it’s always like this: those who believe in the use of violence wait until the moment when things have gotten out of hand, and it seems too late to do anything else in a given situation but resort to violence. Then they say to the nonviolent movement at home: “OK, maybe you are right, maybe we should have done things much earlier, but now that we are in this situation, you’ve got to support us.”

Why We Have To Stop Playing The Military Game

Well, I’ve had enough of that. I’m not the president, and neither are you. He didn’t come to ask us about whether or not he should use violence, but to tell us why he had decided to do so.

Nor is he asking us what to do about the Republicans’ demands for cuts in spending. If he did, I’d tell him to start by cutting half the military budget, removing our troops from Germany and Japan, and closing hundreds of foreign military installations.

And I’d tell him that it’s time to fund a Global Marshall Plan (GMP) through a Tobin tax on any international transfer of funds over $1 million. Of course, if you personally are in the habit of transferring more than a million dollars at a clip, you might resent my proposal for how to fund the GMP. But I don’t know anybody who makes such transactions except the big banks and investment companies and the super rich, and they could afford a 1 percent tax on such transactions.

Why the GMP? Because the long-term solution to our global mess is to change the fundamental frame of how we all approach world problems. Right now, and for the past five thousand years, the power elite and most nations have assumed that their best interests are served by trying to dominate and control others. But we at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives believe that our “homeland security” can better be achieved when we adopt a strategy of generosity. And that is what the Global Marshall Plan is all about. Please go read our full proposal.

“But Rabbi Lerner, don’t you understand that your long-run plan here is not likely to get sufficient public support, and that in the meantime we need to do something in this short-term crisis? We’ll deal with those long-term visions later.”

Well, after fifty years of being involved in political activity, I can tell you that this is always the argument used, and that “later” never comes precisely because people have been manipulated into focusing only on the short-term crisis.

So I’m not playing that game any more.

Possibly I would have felt differently had Obama’s speech balanced the long- and short-term goals. Imagine if he had talked about a Global Marshall Plan and endorsed a strategy of generosity as part of his program. Imagine if he had called the nation’s attention to House Resolution 157 introduced by Congressman Keith Ellison of Minneapolis in tandem with the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tikkun — the resolution that endorses our version of the Global Marshall Plan. If that had been coupled with some specific acts to move our foreign policy in that direction, if Obama had said “from now on, I’m going to veto every military funding measure that comes my way that doesn’t have an equal amount of funding for the ending of global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care, such as is proposed in the Global Marshall Plan, I might have said, “OK, at least there is a balance here between short-term violence and long-term sanity.”

But there is not and has never been such a balance in U.S. foreign policy or U.S. military spending.

And the “long run” and the “later when we’ll deal with that” never comes.

It is precisely the short-run thinking that makes us miss every opportunity to stop the violent from winning in this world. After World War I, we could have prevented the rise of a fascist movement in Europe had we approached the losing side in a spirit of generosity, provided financial support to the progressive socialist movements that were seeking to rebuild Europe in a democratic way, and provided massive aid to Europeans to prevent them from suffering the economic and political desperation that drew them toward fascist “solutions.” When we tried that after World War II in Europe, it worked. It was called the Marshall Plan. So, yes, by 1939 it was too late, and I would have supported the U.S. entry into World War II. But in 1928 it wasn’t too late, and it’s not too late right now to reorient the advanced industrial societies toward a strategy of generosity for the world in 2011.

How to Change the Fundamental Framework of Foreign Policy

So, our task is not to figure out how best to use the military might of the country, because in fact no one is asking us. Our task is to change the fundamental framework, and to use moments like this to call our country back to the challenge of building a world of peace, to begin now to make that happen. And to do that, I’m not going to sign on to acts of violence. Violence begets violence. Over and over and over again, violence begets violence.

But it’s not enough to oppose violence. That’s the deep weakness of an anti-war movement that focuses only on what it is against. The world needs to hear what we are for.

Tikkun and the NSP have an answer: the GMP. Our task, and that includes your task, is to refuse the discussion as it is posed now, to reject the terms or the framing of the questions by the pollsters, and to instead say clearly: I’m for a strategy of generosity, and until that is on the table, I’m not supporting any other use of our military budget except to cut it.

And I still hope that the people of Libya themselves find a way to remove that moral monster from power.

“But when you see violence happening in front of you, and you can stop it, don’t you have an obligation to do so?”

Well, yes. And that’s why even with all that I’ve said above I’m glad that Obama created an international force to stop Gaddafi. Yet absent the explicit intention to form a permanent international police force that is used to intervene in these kinds of situations, a force that would have the power to have stopped the United States from starting the war in Iraq or Vietnam, a force that would have stopped Israel from invading Gaza or Hamas from shelling Sderot, a force that would have stopped China from invading Tibet, a force that would have stopped the genocide in Darfur and Rwanda, I question the moral sanity of leaving this intervention in the hands of the world’s often reckless superpower.

And since the president and the media are not asking us advice on whether or not to stop Qaddafi, the real question facing us is not whether you and I have an obligation to stop Qaddafi’s violence, but what we do to use this moment to push a long-term vision into national consciousness — a vision for ending poverty and the global sources of violence and for building support for the strategy of generosity as the path to a world of peace and mutual solidarity.

[Another opinion to consider: We’d also like to share this different perspective from Uri Avnery, chair of the Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom, who does not share the same level of commitment to nonviolence expressed in my editorial above.]


5 thoughts on “Violence in Libya

  1. Good points from Lerner. I never like to see violent U.S. Military involvement in other countries’ affairs. I too find it hypocritical that the U.S. says nothing about oppression in some countries while taking action in others. I believe military action is taken due to issues over resources.

    Also, here is a link to a special teaching from Marshall Vian Summers entitled “rebellion, revolution, and war” that was received in a state of revelation during the recent uprisings.

  2. “So, yes, I’m glad he has helped create an international force to protect some of Libya’s people from the threats of murder that Qaddafi was starting to implement weeks ago.”

    Almost every discussion on Libya I hear ends with the argument that to save the lives of the people of Benghazi we must agree that the intervention was necessary. It’s a hard argument to counter, and I think the only way to do it is with some “the ends justify the means” thinking. “The ends justify the means” is never a popular or easy thing to say, but often it is true. We all use it all the time in less drastic and controversial situations. For example, who would argue that it’s not better to pull your kid out of the way of a potential accident that is 99.9% sure to occur in five minutes even if it means traumatizing her momentarily or hurting her arm? Every time we do something “healthy” that isn’t pleasurable at the time but will hopefully improve our lives, we are using “the ends justify the means”.

    In this case we might ask ourselves if the world or even Libya itself will be better off in the future because of the intervention: if more lives will be lost, if the quality of lives in Libya and the planet will be better or worse. I know “the ends justify the means” is the same argument all kinds of evil people have used to justify their actions, but that doesn’t lessen its essential validity. As usual, the devil is in the details. We have to find the proper balance somewhere in between “if we save only one human life today…” and callous realpolitik; and it may not be the case that the best position is to approve the intervention, as Lerner seems to be doing, while hoping that its worst effects can somehow be avoided.

  3. I don’t see approval/support of military intervention in Rabbi Lerner’s comments. Rather, I see an attempt to hear President Obama fully and for that I respect Rabbi Lerner’s position. In fact, my husband and I had a conversation Tuesday evening during which we expressed similar thoughts including naming nearly all of the examples of US military intervention as are listed in the rabbi’s piece.

    In reviewing the recent uprisings in the Middle East, I note that the first public actions on the part of the people are in the form of massive, noisy, obstructive, but non-violent gatherings at the centers of government. Are there enough of us in the United States with the moral/political will do to the same? Maybe we could re-read Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”?

    Having written the above, I feel compelled to say also that I wish with all my being that I could write, instead, of an easier means to accomplish a more sustainable way of seeing than our government has thus far, for the most part, acted upon. I’m still working on it. Our World Needs the GMP. Soonest.

    Yours for a healthier community…

  4. I prefer the US saty out of Libta or any other Arab internal fight. The outcome is never positive. The moment a target is missed and civilians are killed, US flags will be set on fire throughout the Arab world. The Arab world has a long way to go before it steps out of the dark ages. I guess there is hope, after all Europeans became civilized after WW 2

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