Now that the no-fly zone debate seems to have been settled on the ground in
Libya -- it clearly halted an impending massacre in Benghazi, and seems to have
given embattled residents in Misrata and Zintan a reprieve -- if not in the
U.S. Congress, discussion is now turning to whether to arm the rebels and give
them more explicit political support.
Former U.S. ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz addressed this topic obliquely in
Friday's press conference. "I'm not going to get into internal discussions
about whether we will provide arms or whether we won't provide arms," he said.
"I can just say that we're having the full gamut of potential assistance
that we might offer, both on the non-lethal and the lethal side, is a subject
of discussion within the U.S. government, but there has been no final decisions
made on any aspect of that."
NPR subsequently reported, citing Pentagon sources, that among the options
being considered were providing the rebels with RPGs -- presumably to use
against Qaddafi's tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters. The
rebels are eager to get their hands on such weapons.
Many observers are understandably leery of such a step. Not only would it be
legally debatable according to the terms of U.N. Security Resolution 1973,
which authorized the no-fly/no-drive/no-sail zone in and around Libya, but it
would represent a risky escalation in what the Obama administration has been at
pains to portray as a TLSLMA -- a "time-limited, scope-limited military
action." We may know a few of the familiar faces heading the
"transitional council," but do we really know who wields real power
and authority among the rebels, to the extent that anyone
does? What if they commit a massacre using U.S.-provided weapons? What if
they prove to be just as bad as Qaddafi? What if weapons get into the hands of al Qaeda?
And yet there are strong arguments for providing at least small arms. One
reason is that weapons are probably going to pour in anyway, perhaps from
Egyptian stockpiles or factories and perhaps paid for by Gulf Arab states
(indeed, the Wall Street Journal has reported
that this is already happening, though Egypt denies it). Another is that the
West, or the United States, will have more influence with the rebels if it is
arming them than if it doesn't -- and thus may be better placed to shape events
going forward. And, of course, the most straightforward reason for giving the
rebels weapons is because they may not be able to protect themselves -- let
alone defeat Qaddafi's forces -- without them. And given that Obama has said
that Qaddafi must go, the United States has staked its prestige on the rebels'
All of that is why opponents of the U.S.-led intervention feared, rightly,
that America's involvement in Libya wouldn't stop with a no-fly zone. And yet
what was the alternative? To sit back and watch as Qaddafi butchered his own
people and re-imposed control over eastern Libya? Then what? And what kind of
impact would that have on democratic uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East?
Dictators everywhere would learn the lesson that brutality works, and that --
once again -- the words of the international community mean nothing. An early
end to the "Arab Spring" could stoke resentment and bitterness for years, with
dangerous consequences not only for the region but for Americans and Europeans
None of this is ideal. Congress is unhappy, Obama's own team is divided, the
coalition diplomacy is a mess, and opportunistic leaders in China, Russia, and
elsewhere are aping Qaddafi propaganda to bash the West. Those looking for consistency in U.S. policy won't find it in Bahrain or Yemen, to take just two examples. Yet thousands of Libyan lives
have been saved, millions of Arabs are cheering on Western airstrikes for the
first time in history, and one of the world's nastiest tyrants is on his way
out. Surely all that is an accomplishment worth celebrating -- and validating by finishing the job.