By Bernice A. King,
Chief Exeuctive Officer of The King Center
I was much encouraged by President Obama’s speech to the nation on the crisis in Syria. Like many, I have been deeply concerned about the prospect of the U.S. bombing Syria, despite the commendable objective of eliminating chemical weaponry. Like my father, Martin Luther King, Jr., I hold the conviction that there is always a better way to resolve disputes than taking military action, with its inevitable “collateral damage” of innocent civilians, including children.
I join with president Obama people of good will everywhere in deploring the use of chemical weapons in any context whatsoever. I wholeheartedly agree that some effective action must be taken to prevent further such tragedies as that which has occurred in Syria, where precious children have suffered unimaginable pain and cruelty as a result of the use of chemical weapons. The civilized community of nations must not, in good conscience, sit idly on the sidelines, when brutality on this scale surfaces anywhere.
In my view, unilateral military action almost always represents a failure of vision. No nation should assume responsibility for serving as “the world’s policeman,’ as President Obama put it. We have the United Nations and the World Court for that. I understand how international politics can paralyze the U.N. into inaction and the World Court has its limitations as well. We have unfortunately let these important instruments of international law enforcement fall into disuse. The U.S. and all nations must begin anew to strengthen these institutions so they can help prevent future atrocities.
In his address, President Obama explained that his administration “has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warning and negotiations.” Yet chemical weapons were still deployed. Thus he felt that the time had come to openly warn that a targeted U.S. military strike against the Assad regime to deter further use of chemical weapons was imminent.
Commendably, however, the President recognized that he had a moral obligation to secure the approval of congress before taking such drastic action. “I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress, he said. “And I believe America acts more effectively abroad when we act together.” With this critically-important decision, the President strengthened the credibility of the U.S. and our potential ability to take effective action to end the horrific suffering in Syria.
President Obama acknowledged the war fatigue many Americans feel as a result of the “terrible toll” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the importance of nation-building “here at home: putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class.” We can be sure that he got millions of expressions of approval for that among those who watched his address on television, including myself.
Even more encouraging, the President recognized the all-important opportunity to resolve the crisis peacefully which has emerged with Russian President Putin’s “willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons,” along with the Assad regime’s new offer to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. To President Obama’s great credit, he is seizing this opportunity for a full-scale diplomatic initiative to secure a peaceful outcome based on these new developments.
He has urged Congress to postpone a vote on the authorization of military force and he is reaching out to the leaders of China, Great Britain and France, as well as Russia, to join in a U.N. Security Council resolution requiring the Assad regime to surrender and destroy its chemical weapons. In this endeavor, the president deserves our prayers for his success and our support as citizens.
Of course, President Obama will not renounce the possible use of military force, which is his responsibility as commander-in-chief. But all Americans should be proud that he has kept faith with the principles of securing congressional approval and fully exhausting all possible diplomatic paths before committing our defense forces to military intervention.
In the longer run, however, the crisis in Syria brings an urgent reminder that we must do more to prevent civil conflicts from erupting into war and atrocities worldwide. As my father wrote in the final chapter of his last book, “In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war. A so-called limited war will leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political turmoil, and spiritual disillusionment…therefore I suggest that the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict, by no means excluding the relations between nations.”
During the ”Arab Spring” of 2010-11, the world witnessed the power of nonviolence in bringing about a peaceful end to a long-entrenched dictatorship. Although the flowering of that nonviolent revolution was short-lived, it provided an inkling of the possibilities which can become reality through a commitment to disciplined nonviolence on the part of protest movements. If the U.S. and other great democracies will now embrace the wisdom of investing in education and training in nonviolence for people who are struggling for freedom and human rights, we can lay the foundation for a new era of peaceful change --- and hope --- for all humanity.