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Shamed into Action: America and Libya

“Who is my neighbor?” That’s what an expert in the law asked Jesus after the Lord affirmed the two great commandments: Love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan. You know the story and the punch line. The Samaritan saw his neighbor in the man beaten and left for dead along the road to Jericho, and the Samaritan loved his neighbor by tending to his wounds.

In a world awash in crises, no nation on earth has the power or resources to stop every injustice and tend to every wound. But there are times when a great nation can and must do something.

And for the past several weeks, forces loyal to the brutal dictator Muammar Qaddafi bombed and strafed innocent civilians along with the rebel forces they had targeted.

And the U.S. did nothing.

The magnitude of our inaction hit home to me late last week. I bumped in to the great Catholic theologian Michael Novak. He reminded me that once Michelle Obama had said that when her husband won the nomination for president, it was the first time in her life she’d been proud of her country. Then Novak told me that he had never been so ashamed of our country as when our leaders failed to lift a finger to stop the massacre in Libya.

Strong, sobering words.

And now the U.S. has been shamed into action by, of all things, the United Nations, which declared a no-fly zone over Libya, and the government of Libya then announcing a ceasefire.

But for American honor and credibility among the oppressed people of the world, the damage has been done. We dawdled too long -- just has we did with the genocide in Rwanda.

Now don’t get me wrong: Putting troops in harm’s way is the most difficult decision a president can make -- especially at a time when our military is stretched so thin. I know. I was there myself in the White House. It’s tough.

But as I’ve said many times on BreakPoint, a president must first weigh whether military action is just.  According to the Christian just war tradition, in order to be just, a military action must be for a just cause and done for the right reason. It must be waged by a legitimate authority as a last resort. The action must be proportional to the threat, and there has to be a probability of success.

I can’t imagine a more just and proportional response to the massacre of innocent people than to establish a no-fly zone. So I was mystified and chagrined by our nation’s inaction.

And we have every right to wonder just what kind of pressure the administration may or may not be putting on Saudi Arabia to cease its involvement in the savage suppression of revolts in Bahrain.

Again, America cannot run around the globe solving every conflict. But there are times when we have the ability and the moral obligation to stop a grave injustice -- and to help innocent people who seek only freedom. This was one of those times.

America is great so long as it is a moral beacon. When we behave immorally, when we look the other way in the face of grave evil, we lose our greatness.

And we Christians -- the moral conscience of society -- have to be the ones to say so.

This article published on March 21, 2011.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

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