Predicting from the get-go that limited Western involvement in the Libya conflict would lead to a “stalemate,” hawkish right-wing commentators have urged the Obama administration to do more to ensure a rebel victory that ousts eccentric dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Many neoconservative pundits and their close allies in Congress have called for arming the rebels.
France, for its part, took the step of unilaterally providing arms even as NATO-ally Britain refused to do so because of questions over the move’s legality. The U.S. has stated that it remains open to the possibility, but no reports have surfaced indicating the rebels are receiving arms from America.
An article today in the Washington post suggests, however, that the predictions of a stalemate and the need to arm rebels may have been premature:
On Wednesday, the rebels claimed a new victory in a march toward the capital that, in recent weeks, has won them tanks, rocket launchers and an large ammunition dump seized from Gaddafi’s military.
In addition to this, the Libyan rebel forces have also been building their own arms. In short: the rebels appear to be arming themselves just fine.
Little is known about the rebels themselves, and arming them could be fraught with pitfalls. Consider New Yorker writer Steve Coll’s assessment at the outset of the conflict, which still rings true today, that the rebels’ “principles, capacity, training, discipline, and understanding of international human-rights norms seem so doubtful.”
While we don’t know that arming the rebels would ensure a decisive victory, we do know that when the civil war ends — as we hope it does — Libya will likely suffer many of the same consequences as other unstable post-conflict situations awash with guns.
Even if we could collect most of what we gave out — which we can’t — a scant handful of high-powered weapons in the hands of bad actors can be disastrous in a place where government control is weak. It doesn’t take much firepower to destabilize an already fragile society.
While both sides of the issue have supporting arguments, the rebels’ ingenuity and battlefield captures may obviate this difficult decision for U.S. policy makers.