When Non-Violence Isn't Enough

03/17/2011 05:50 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2011

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new phenomenon has emerged for the removal of dictatorial governments. In Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia and Lebanon "color revolutions" brought about new, more democratic models of governance. Most recently, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted by a Jasmine Revolution. These revolutions differed from the other, bloodier revolutions of the past in that the revolutionaries did not use armed uprisings, guerrilla tactics or terrorism to free themselves from their oppressors. Instead, they adopted a series of tactics which have come to be referred to as "non-violent resistance". This resistance involves a series of techniques used to expose dictators and wrest legitimacy from their authoritarian regimes. They are meant to force capitulation which eventually leads to a democratic transition.

Using references to Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi, these revolutions have been popularly described as being "moral" responses to the immoral repression of the autocrats. This, however, is a miss-conception. As Peter Ackerman, member of the Board of Directors of the Council on Foreign Relations and expert in non-violent action said in his book A Force More Powerful:

"Most of those who have used nonviolent action have not primarily been motivated by a desire to be nonviolent or to make peace. They have wanted to fight for their rights or interests, but by means other than guns or bombs - either because they have seen that violence had been ineffectual or because they had no violent force at their disposal."

In essence, non-violent resistance (like armed uprising) rests on the dynamics of power. The powerless use non-violent resistance because they lack other means by which to wrest political control from the dictators. The theory of non-violence is that the sheer, overwhelming numbers of those oppressed, when acting in unison and carrying out activities of "civil disobedience", will make a country ungovernable. Through this strategy the resulting ungovernability will force the hand of the security services; either they obey orders from the dictator and unleash an assault on fellow citizens or they capitulate and shepherd the demise of the tyrant. Most of the times when democratic transition has occurred, it has also been because the strongman has been governing with a veneer of legitimacy and is unwilling or unable to remove this facade. Taking advantage of this confluence of circumstances, non-violent revolutionaries have brought freedom to millions of people across the world.

Nevertheless, there are times when non-violent resistance is ineffective. When the dictatorial governments in question are so brutal and so contemptuous of international opinion that they are prepared to mete out un-inhibited cruelty, the activities of resistance are destined to failure. This has been the case in Burma during the "Saffron Revolution", in Iran during the "Green Revolution", and in the current revolution in Libya.

During these delicate moments, international support is more -- not less -- justified. Failed "color revolutions" expose the leaders for who they really are. If there had been any doubt about Ahmadinejad's contempt for his people, or Gaddafi's true nature, they have been laid to rest. During the "Green Revolution", the Obama administration famously failed to act to protect innocent civilians and serve as the guarantor of freedom for an oppressed people. Whatever the real politic that accompanied that fateful decision, the result has made the world a more dangerous place. The administration has been fortuitously given a second chance, an opportunity to redeem itself. As Muammar Gaddafi uses the heavy machinery of war on his own people, President Obama can use this moment to unequivocally and uncontroversially stand up against a tyrant. He has, in his hands, the ability to free the Libyan people from a half century of brutality. He must now assume the courage of his convictions when he said in Cairo:

"I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."

It is easy to stand on the sidelines and root for the success of the non-violent activists. It takes more courage to discern when these actions are futile, and act acordingly. President Obama's words are a part of what has brought such important changes to the Middle East. They are words that struck a cord in the hearts of the Libyan people. The time has come, in Libya, to make those words a reality.