Should the U.S. arm the Libyan rebels?

Should the U.S. arm the Libyan rebels?

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’ victory.

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 as well.

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.