This is a guest note by Daniel R. DePetris, a graduate student studying security issues at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. DePetris is also an associate editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis.
Arming Libyan Rebels is Dangerous Proposition
Amid criticism from Congressional Republicans that the United States “dithered” in Libya, as well as complaints from his own party, President Barack Obama addressed the nation a week ago Monday in an attempt to address those concerns and put them to rest. And while questions remain as to when the conflict will end and what the United States is ultimately trying to accomplish in Libya, the president put forth a compassionate case for his decision to intervene. Indeed, as Obama stated, tens of thousands of Libyan civilians in the eastern portion of the country could have been susceptible to a systemic wave of violence if the international community did not respond in time.
“We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world,” Obama said. “It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen.”
Clearly, the speech was not only a defense of the president’s policy, but the first step in a series of efforts by the administration to ensure everyone that matters that the White House is on the same page and knows what it is doing.
A day later, Admiral James Stavridis, the head of US European Command and the man in charge of the Libya operation, testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee to tout the White House line. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, followed up on those remarks with testimonies of their won on March 31, facing critiques by both parties about the administration’s military objectives.
Mr. Gates and Gen. Mullen, in a packed chamber, did a relatively decent job of explaining the administration’s narrative in the Libya conflict. Congressional support for the humanitarian mission thus far has been spotty, with Democrats warning against escalation, Republicans lambasting the White House for not doing enough to support the rebels, and both charging the administration with avoiding Congress during the deliberation phase before Tomahawk cruise-missiles rained down on Tripoli.
Yet there was one question asked during the Senate and House hearings that Gates and Mullen strayed away from, clearly for the purpose of keeping all of the president’s options on the table. Is the United States going to send weapons to the Libyan rebels?
US officials are already debating this question amongst themselves. Perhaps we should not be surprised that SecDef Gates and JCS Chairman Mullen evaded the question. Indeed, there appears to be a general disunity among White House staff, the State Department, and the Pentagon on whether funneling arms to anti-Qaddafi forces is a viable, or smart, alternative.
Just the fact that US officials are having this discussion exemplifies a classic case of “mission creep,” which can be briefly described as the tendency of a military operation to escalate as time goes on. In Afghanistan, the original mission for Washington was to route Al’Qaeda training camps, drive the Taliban from power, and kill or capture the man responsible for the September 11 attacks. Ten years later, the United States military and its allies are stuck in a fight with an adaptive and homegrown enemy, with goals that far exceed the original plan.
Vietnam is perhaps the most obvious case of mission creep. In 1963, the United States followed the specific order of ‘advising’ South Vietnamese troops for their war against the communists in the north. Six years later, 500,000 American soldiers found themselves in the jungles of Vietnam in a misguided notion that the North Vietnamese could be defeated by military power alone.
Fast forward to 2011, and Washington could very well be traveling down the same rugged path. Despite all the bombing runs and cruise missile attacks from coalition warplanes, the central mission as stated in the UN Security Council resolution is still the protection of Libyan civilians. This is precisely why a no-fly zone is up and running over Benghazi and eastern Libya, and why coalition planes continue to strike Qaddafi’s mobile military forces on the ground.
But the introduction of American-made weapons into the hands of the rebels will undoubtedly change the very nature of the current conflict. One of the most captivating stories over the past three months is the notion that the Arab people themselves are taking action against their own corrupt and nepotistic governments, without overt foreign support or another western-led invasion akin to 2003 Iraq.
Arming the Libyan rebels would drastically undercut that compassionate narrative, once again placing the United States and its western allies smack in the middle of a conflict that Libyans started, and must finish. Covert support may weaken Qaddafi’s power base and shorten the time that he is in power, but it could also prolong the war by adding more firepower to the other side. More suffering by the Libyan people would be a result, which ironically would refute the entire resolution that the Security Council passed before the Libyan intervention began.
If the west wants to help, sending in humanitarian supplies and urging western and Islamic charities to treat civilians who are struggling is the safest and most humane option. Washington would also be advised to step up their contacts with Arab and African leaders in the hopes of offering Qaddafi and his family a way out. This option would not be the punishment that Qaddafi deserves, but it could cut the duration of the war effort significantly and speed up post-conflict rebuilding.
Otherwise, Washington should stay out of this civil war and redirect resources on issues that really matter for US interests and the continued momentum of the “Arab Spring:” smoothing Egypt’s transition to a parliamentary system, urging Saudis to withdraw their troops from Bahrain, and calling for reconciliation among Yemen’s many factions. All in all, ensuring that Egypt makes a complete break with its authoritarian past will be a greater precedent for democracy advocates in the Arab world than the overthrow of an isolated, and marginal, North African dictator.
— Daniel R. DePetris