Energion Roundtable Question 11 -- Libya, the Middle East, and American Presence

We’re now within days of the election, and a large storm (a literal one) has thrown a wrench into the electoral politics.  But that’s not the question of the week posed by the editor of Energion Publications  to our round table.  This question focuses on Libya and the attack on the consulate.

One of the major news stories of the last couple of weeks has been the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the deaths of the ambassador and three other people there. In response, some have suggested that America is portraying weakness in the Middle East (and elsewhere) and that we need to maintain a strong military, or increase what we now have, and take a stronger stand against regimes and terrorist groups that oppose our policies and/or our interests.

As a Christian and an American, what do you think our approach should be? How does your faith inform your answer to this question?

Regarding the consulate attack, if I tried to deal with it directly I’d end up in the weeds dealing with things I’m not competent to deal with.  Mistakes likely were made.  Hopefully they’ll get taken care of.  The deaths of the Ambassador and three aides was tragic, and their loss is to be mourned, not politicized.

Instead of getting entangled in that debate, I’d like to focus on the larger question of America’s reputation and presence in the world, especially in relationship to the Middle East.  Until the 1890s, when the United States got involved in war with Spain (Spanish American War) we were largely focused on things at home (expanding grasp on the North American continent).  War with Spain brought us new imperial acquisitions, including the Philippines.  We took over Hawaii and other lands as well during this era.  We would fight a bloody war in the Philippines and engage in other battles around the world, but we still weren’t a world power.  World War I changed this to some degree, though we turned isolationist in the immediate aftermath.  So, it really wasn’t until World War II that the United States truly became a world power.  Although we have always believed ourselves to be at least well-intentioned, history shows that there has often been a dark side to our engagement on a world stage.  We have a tendency to be blind to our own faults, and in pursuit of our own interests have ridden roughshod over the interests of others.

With regard to the Middle East, our partnerships over the decades with dictators and strongmen have undermined our image as a beacon of democracy.  The oppressed in countries like Egypt and Iran under the Shah wondered about the disconnect between our lofty words and ideals and the realities of our support for less than savory folks (like Mubarak).      

In the current political debate, Mitt Romney and his allies have called for a more robust military presence.  He suggests that if we project military strength that no one will challenge us.  Now, if this is true, then you’d think that our having the largest military budget in the world, with our budget dwarfing the next largest (China) would mean that all would be peaceful.  As the Romans learned, having the best army doesn’t always lead to peace.  President Obama has ended the war in Iraq, but has pursued military expansion in Afghanistan and entered the Libyan conflict.  He has authorized a significant uptick in drone strikes and pursued the killing of Osama bin Laden.  You’d think that this would suggest strength.

Unfortunately, despite our military prowess peace remains elusive.  We can’t impose our will on every country.  We marched into Baghdad in a matter of weeks, but “pacifying the country” took years and even now isn’t complete.  We defeated the Taliban in quick strides, but Afghanistan is no more peaceful today than a decade ago.  Libya is free of its dictator’s grasp, but a stable nation remains on the horizon.  We could bomb Iran, but could we occupy it?  Do we want to?  Vietnam should have been a clue that military prowess isn’t enough, but we didn’t seem to learn the lesson.

So what’s the solution?  I don’t think military strength will do the job.  Diplomacy has a better chance, but diplomacy requires that we understand the nations we seek to engage.  It means understanding the complexity that is Islam.  Shia and Sunni have significant differences.  Arabs and Persians and Turks and Kurds have their differences, that even religion doesn’t always bridge.  We need to understand Islam.  We need people who are trained in Arabic and Farsi and Turkish languages.  We need to understand how our sense of our own selves can affect the way we’re perceived by others.   

We also need patience, because democracy will have to evolve and it will evolve differently in the Middle East than it does in America.  Consider even Israel. We speak of it as if it’s a Western democracy, but is it?  It’s commitment to being a Jewish state means that one religion is privileged over all others.  That’s not the American vision.  It could be appropriate for that region – but we don’t seem to understand what this means for Palestinians living in Israel or under Israeli occupation.   
Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney demonstrates the kind of awareness of these realities that I'd like to see, though I believe that President Obama is better equipped than Mr. Romney to handle these questions.       

            As for how my faith contributes to these understandings, I will say that as a follower of Jesus I’m compelled to pursue justice and peace in our world.  I’m not a pacifist, but that doesn’t mean I’m a military-first kind of person.  Most importantly, my own sense of vision is guided by Jesus’ call to love my neighbor as I love myself.   That is a posture that may lead to greater peace, but I don’t think it will be the position of our government anytime soon.

            For other responses see the posts by roundtable participants:     Allan BevereElgin HushbeckJoel Watts, and Arthur Sido.         


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