Arming The Libyan Rebels: What To Do?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the Nike solution applied to everything? If the problem of whether (and how) the outside world should support the anti-Gadhafi forces in Libya were so simple, Obama could just appoint Phil Knight to be the next Secretary of State.

Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. When it comes to arming the Libyan rebels, many of the people saying “just do it” are the same people who were gung-ho about the last couple of American wars. It’s not entirely fair to say that the mainstream journalists and overpaid think-tankers who supported the Iraq invasion early on ought to be banned from advising anyone about anything—but, well, they probably ought to be.

As painful as it is to give any number of discredited warmongers a fair hearing, it would be a bigger mistake to treat the horrific situation in Libya as a chance to reenact an eight-year-old domestic political dispute. Any seemingly reflexive stance on the matter—whether in favor of military action or against it—cannot, by definition, be based on an honest evaluation of the unique circumstances in Libya.

I’m always at pains to note that W.I.B. is not an antiwar website—it’s an anti-war profiteering website. With that said, to my mind, the anti-intervention camp has produced the most persuasive arguments so far on Libya. There is absolutely no guarantee those arguments will persuade the right people. Indeed, at this point, it appears that Western leaders have already decided in favor of steadily increasing military involvement. Obama has already bypassed Congress to wage a bombing campaign (euphemistically known as the “no-fly zone”); absent domestic opposition, he is free to escalate as long as the uniformed military can bear the strain.

Keep reading for a brief roundup of the latest takes on the most crucial foreign policy question of 2011 (so far).


Forces loyal to Libya’s leader of nearly 42 years spent much of this week pushing the rebels back about 100 miles along the coast, and the opposition was trying to regroup. The rebels had mortars Friday, weapons they previously appeared to have lacked, and on Thursday night they drove in a convoy with at least eight rocket launchers — more artillery than usual.

••• This report raises a question it doesn’t answer: Where’d those new weapons come from? Here’s one possibility:

The CIA personnel were sent in to contact opponents of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and assess their capabilities, two U.S. officials said.

“They’re trying to sort out who could be turned into a military unit and who couldn’t,” said Bob Baer, a former CIA case officer…

U.S. officials familiar with Obama’s covert action order said while it authorizes a potentially sweeping range of measures to support Libyan rebels, each specific operation — for example, sending in U.S. trainers, money or weapons — would require further “permissions” from the White House.

… The New York Times reported that “dozens” of British special forces soldiers and officers from Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, known as MI-6, are working inside Libya.

••• American and British intelligence agents are already in Libya. Reading between the lines of multiple international news accounts, it seems that Yanks are limiting themselves to supplying “training” and intelligence to the rebel forces, while leaving the Brits (or other allied nations) to hand out hardware. This is pure speculation, but it jibes with the equivocal public statements of US and UK leaders.


There are those who would caution that the United States does not know enough about the Libyan opposition to support it, but this is not entirely true. Some of the opposition leaders are former cabinet ministers and generals in the Libyan government, known to the United States and its allies. …

The U.S. decision to support victims of aggression paid off in Bosnia and advanced America’s interests and values. Involvement on the side of the democracy movement in Libya would enable the United States to exercise a positive influence on Libya’s evolution and prevent destabilizing outcomes.

••• This pro-war argument comes from an upstanding Quiet American at the RAND Corporation, the most prestigious think-tank of the US military-industrial complex.

Paul Wolfowitz, a deputy secretary of defense under former President George W. Bush, said it’s vital the U.S. supports arming the rebels.

“I think we should be doing everything we can to support the opposition,” he said. “It’s true, we don’t know what the opposition would be like when they take over, but there are actually some promising signs.”

••• The architect of the Iraq invasion thinks getting deeply involved in an Arab civil war is a fantastic idea.


Under what doctrine or posture might the Administration prosecute Viktor Bout on the one hand and, on the other, provide weaponry to ragtag Libyan rebels whose principles, capacity, training, discipline, and understanding of international human-rights norms seem so doubtful—and may prove to be no better than those of many of Bout’s alleged African clients?

… There is no way to police the rebels’ conduct or to hold them accountable for their actions on the battlefield. It is not clear what the rebels are fighting for, other than survival and the possible opportunity to take power in a country loaded with oil.

••• Party-pooper Steve Coll thinks he’s so smart, with his facts and logic, and is just oh-so-superior the way he brings up morality and all that. Harrumph.

NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen has ruled out arming Libyan rebels now that the organisation has assumed command of international military operations in the country.

Speaking to reporters, Rasmussen said: “We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm the people.”

••• All this statement means, from what I can tell, is that a coup in Libya supported by key NATO members wouldn’t officially be a NATO operation.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday he did not support the idea of arming Libyan rebels fighting to oust Muammar Gaddafi from power.

“Doing that would create a different situation in Libya and we do not find it appropriate to do that,” Erdogan told reporters at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London.

••• This must rank amont the least-articulate antiwar arguments expressed by a head of state in the last several decades years. But there it is.

Global domestic policy probably shouldn’t include handing out guns to lots of unknown forces, even if we may be heartbroken that the Libyan people can’t fight back as effectively as they might otherwise. If we supply them with weapons, the fight may start to look more like ours than theirs, and that may backfire down the road. But the coalition should surely provide intelligence, logistical, and political support, and hope that the neighbors can find a way to clean up the neighborhood as best they can.

••• John Torpey, a guest-poster on Juan Cole’s blog, seems to cautiously support the current official US policy of providing “training” to the rebels, but like many liberals is wary of handing out weapons. From a military point of view, this seems ill-considered. What will those hands-off American advisers do when their rebel allies start losing because they’re outgunned? That outcome seems likely, given reports like this one:


With all the talk of arming Libyan rebels for their campaign against Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, it might be worthwhile to look at what the rebels are actually carrying and using in the field. …

Have look at the picture [here]. The butt stock of that weapon belongs to a Degtyaryov DP machine gun, another of the Soviet Union’s successful and long-lasting infantry arms. The DP lies three generations back in Eastern bloc machine gunnery… 

There is simply no telling how long such weapons will last. And this one…fires one of the most common types of combat ammunition on earth, the 7.62x54R — which means that it could remain well-supplied with ammunition for decades.

••• CJ Chivers muddies the debate with pesky details.

The picture at the top of this post came to me via Facebook. Does anyone know the original source? I’m curious whether everything I’m reading in to the image (support for the Libyan rebels) was intended by its creator.

Is this culture-jamming as propaganda? Or vice versa?