Arm the Rebels? The Debate Rages


By Amar C. Bakshi, CNN

Chris Strohm over at the National Journal lays out five reasons to arm Libya’s rebels, and another five reasons not to.

Five reasons for arming the rebels include: (1) “it may level the playing field”; (2) the “UN Resolution authorizes all necessary measures”; (3) “it may stymie al-Qaeda”; (4) “regional stability is at stake”; and (5) “other countries can provide the arms.”

Five reasons against arming the rebels include: (1) “we don’t know who they are”; (2) “it may not be needed”; (3) “it may not be legal”; (4) “it may stir up a hornet’s nest”; and (5) “it may cost too much”.

Below I’ve highlighted a few takes from people on both sides of the debate, and their reasons.

Fareed argues that arming the opposition is a low-cost policy with a high rate of success, necessary for leveling the playing field against Gadhafi.

“Over the past five decades, the U.S. has had very mixed results when it has intervened, by air or land, in other people's wars. But it has done pretty well when it has helped one side of the struggle.  Arming rebels in Afghanistan, Central America and Africa has proved to be a relatively low-cost policy with high rates of success. Giving arms, food, logistical help, intelligence and other such tools to the Libyan opposition would boost its strength and give it staying power. Once Gadhafi realizes that he is up against an endless supply of arms and ammunition, he will surely recalibrate his decisions.”

Fareed further argues that a genuine rebel army could pressure Gadhafi toward some kind of exit:

“Now that we have tied ourselves to their [the Libyan rebels’] fate, we certainly need to help them more substantially. The arms embargo, which applies equally to Gadhafi and the opposition, will have to be circumvented. A genuine rebel army would put further pressure on Gadhafi, who would know that he faced death at its hands, and would push him toward some kind of exit.”

Max Boot adopts a more aggressive stance, saying the U.S. end goal ought to be removing Gadhafi from power, and arming the rebels is a vital step in that direction.

“Given that we already have Western agents on the ground helping them [the rebels], and that Western aircraft are actively bombing Gadhafi’s forces to bring about his defeat, it seems disingenuous to claim we are not involved in regime change. The only question now is whether that regime change will be swift or protracted. I believe it is in our interest to do everything possible to bring about Gadhafi’s downfall as rapidly as possible–and then to help Libya stabilize itself in the aftermath.

The lesson Max draws from Afghanistan in the 1980s is:

“If the U.S. is involved in toppling a regime, whether directly or indirectly, we must not walk away afterwards. Otherwise our aid can backfire.”

Now according to Reuters and the New York Times, President Obama has signed a secret finding authorizing the C.I.A. to provide arms and other support to the Libyan rebels, although reportedly debate continues within the administration on whether to actually follow through on arming the rebels:

“Several weeks ago, President Obama signed a secret finding authorizing the C.I.A. to provide arms and other support to Libyan rebels, American officials said Wednesday. But weapons have not yet been shipped into Libya, as Obama administration officials debate the effects of giving them to the rebel groups. The presidential finding was first reported by Reuters.”

Blogger Andrew Sullivan is outraged that President Obama may get the U.S. involved in regime change in secret:

“To say that this is a betrayal of his candidacy and his supporters would be an understatement. It makes George Bush's request for a vote from Congress before committing the US to war in Iraq look like a model of democratic accountability. How dare this president commit this country to an open-ended involvement in a foreign country's civil war - in secret, with no real public debate and then presented as a fait accompli. And now we are told there is a debate within the administration over whether to follow through on its preparation and actually arm the rebels. How can that be possible? If we are not there for regime change imposed by foreign powers, as the president has insisted, on what grounds is this even being discussed?”

Andrew further argues that arming the rebels would undermine the Arab Spring:

“This secret shift to full-on entanglement is also, to my mind, a well-meant but ill-conceived undermining of the Arab Spring. Regime change by force of foreign arms is not a democratic revolution; it is the imposition by foreign powers of their agenda in the service of groups we do not know or understand – and will never know and never fully understand.”

Bruce Riedel warns of a slippery slope:

“‘You can’t just give them weapons…. They need to be organized and disciplined to go from being an armed mob to a force capable of dealing with Gadhafi’s troops. That means sending trainers and advisers, which means putting boots on the ground.’”

Alexis Crow echoes common concerns about the makeup of the rebels:

“But the resounding questions are: Who are the rebels, and do they represent a coherent democratic alternative to Gadhafi's regime? Or, will arming the opposition fuel a tribal conflict?”

And Josh Felter and Brian Fishman warn that arming the rebels could simply fuel a deadly civil war, which could allow for a niche jihadi group to flourish:

“The more likely scenario than a clean rebel victory, however, is also more dangerous: that either military stalemate or internal divisions among rebel groups will lead to a chaotic civil war in which a small jihadi faction can flourish amid lawless conditions. History shows us that even a small band of determined extremists, if well led, armed, and equipped, can wreak havoc and challenge efforts to bring stability and order to a weakened state. Algeria suffered a decade of terribly brutal civil war at the hands of extremists such as the Armed Islamic Group and its splinter faction the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Other examples include the Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines, Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, and Islamist extremist groups that fuel the insurgency in Chechnya. And al-Qaida in Iraq still kills on a scale that would be deemed completely unacceptable in any country where the recent past was not so tremendously violent.”

The debate rages on. Spencer Ackerman notes that NATO is “all over the place” on the question of arming the Libyan rebels:

“The international community does not seem to have resolved the question of whether or not to arm the rebels.  In Brussels, the alliance’s civilian leader firmly backed off that option in an interview with CNN. ‘We are not in Libya to arm people,’ said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, ‘but to protect people.’ That contradicted the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. ‘We’ve not, certainly, ruled that out,’ Rice told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who said that the U.S. has ‘an important interest in seeing Gadhafi step down.’”

Amar Bakshi