By now you will no doubt have been exposed to some of the many, many good arguments against this policy course. I'm not going to exhaustively and categorically recount them all, but I want to take just a minute to go over some of the basics.
[I've been typing bits of this all day, and just within the last hour, Reuters is reporting that the president "has signed a secret order authorizing covert U.S. support for rebel forces seeking to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi." Supposing the decision's now been taken, these issues are even more worthy of thoughtful consideration.]
First off, we don't have a damn clue who the opposition is. Sure, we've met with a few "ministers" in the anti-Qaddafi movement, mostly western-educated English speakers and former regime loyalists. But we don't understand the fundamental character of the rebel organization, the relationship between the various "transitional" or opposition political arrangements (some of which we're only just becoming acquainted with), or whether a command-and-control relationship between those groups and the armed men engaging regime forces on the ground even exists in any meaningful sense. Who the hell are we planning to arm? We're not even sure who speaks for the resistance movement, never mind who will fight for it. Divisions in the opposition mean that we can't be sure by whom and to what end the weapons will be used.
Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker has spent some time with the rebels. Here's an extended clip from his essential piece "Who are the rebels?":
Significant questions remain about the leaders of the rebellion: who they are, what their political ideas are, and what they would do if Qaddafi fell. At the courthouse on Benghazi’s battered seafront promenade, the de-facto seat of the Libyan revolution, a group of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals have appointed one another to a hodgepodge of “leadership councils.” There is a Benghazi city council, and a Provisional National Council, headed by a bland but apparently honest former justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who spends his time in Bayda, a hundred and twenty-five miles away. Other cities have councils of their own. The members are intellectuals, former dissidents, and businesspeople, many of them from old families that were prominent before Qaddafi came to power. What they are not is organized. No one can explain how the Benghazi council works with the National Council. Last week, another shadow government, the Crisis Management Council, was announced in Benghazi; it was unclear how its leader, a former government planning expert named Mahmoud Jibril [who Secretary Clinton met with yesterday in London], would coördinate with Jalil, or whether he had supplanted him.
It gets more confusing: there are two competing military chiefs. One is General Abdel Fateh Younis, who was Qaddafi’s interior minister and the commander of the Libyan special forces until he “defected” to the rebel side. Younis has been publicly absent, and he is distrusted by the shabab and by many council members. The other chief, Colonel Khalifa Heftir, is a hero of Libya’s war with Chad, in the nineteen-eighties; he later turned against Qaddafi and, until recently, was in exile in the U.S. [And by "in exile in the U.S.," we mean he's been living in the DC suburbs for the last two decades.] Unlike Younis, he elicits widespread admiration in Benghazi, but he, too, has kept out of sight, evidently at a secret Army camp where he is preparing élite troops for battle.You may be negotiating with the western-educated English speakers, but they aren't going to be the ones handling anti-tank weapons. What do those guys want? Because once they've got the guns, good ol' Colon Heftir and General Younis may not be the only ones making decisions.
In case that's not enough, it seems pretty clear that whichever faction ends up with our support, it won't be even remotely capable of employing sophisticated weapons in an effective manner. Put simply, the Libyan opposition is not a viable military force. It's a rabble, a gang. It's a loosely-confederated group of people who are pissed-off enough at Qaddafi to take up arms (however briefly and ineffectively) in the name of his ouster. It's a non-state (sub-state) group. Damned near everything about the established methods by which we provide training and equipment to foreign partners is geared toward supporting states and institutions. Aside from covert methods (which it now seems we're gearing up to employ) and direct assistance from Special Forces, we don't even have a legal means to transfer weapons to an insurgent group operating on the territory of an embargoed country. The standard mechanism through which military materiel is provided to foreign parties by the U.S. government is foreign military sales (FMS), a process in which the USG procures and delivers hardware to the foreign customer under the terms of a signed contract. Who's the empowered official for a gang?
This seemingly mundane technical detail has broader, more serious implications: we have leverage over other states. We have mechanisms to ensure U.S.-provided gear isn't misused or transferred to other parties without our approval. We can take punitive action against states that don't honor their commitments as a recipient of American security assistance, and that threat almost certainly has a deterrent effect. Most foreign parties purchase U.S. gear to establish a relationship, not simply to buy military capability, and so they're loath to suffer the consequences of bad faith. Such commitments almost certainly would not hold with a non-state group, particularly one we can't seem to precisely identify or describe.
On top of all that: Guns aren't a policy. Guns are just guns. What that means is that once they're out there, you can't readjust. You can't recalibrate. You can't ask for all your weapons to be returned so that they can be redistributed to the faction that's better aligned with your strategic intent. You can only hope what you've done ends up accomplishing what you want. And I'll be the one millionth guy to say it: hope is not a plan.
We need to recognize that this lack of clarity and precision means we'll be backing a side in what might evolve from a bipolar anti-authoritarian resistance into a complex, multipolar civil war... and it's not even clear we get to pick our own horse. Like it or not, the provision of weapons means taking a side. The guy carrying a U.S.-provided weapon is now "U.S.-backed," whether you know one damn thing about what he wants or what he's doing. We've been through this in Central and South America, and we've reaped the whirlwind in Afghanistan. Somebody's going to end up with the guns. We don't get to decide how they use them. We don't even have enough information to guess at what they'll do if and when Qaddafi is deposed. (There's also the whole possible-ties-to-extremism thing that I'm not going to go into in depth here, but which we ought to keep in mind.) Arming insurgents is a fire-and-forget policy... one that can come back to bite you in the ass.
And finally, small arms almost certainly aren't the answer. Small arms are for personal protection and pot-shooting, not the destruction or defeat of professional mechanized armies. There are likely hundreds of thousands of battle rifles, pistols, grenades, and RPGs in Libya right now. Sending a few thousand more into the country isn't going to enable the conquest of Tripoli by a shitty non-army. As Nathan Freier alludes to in the Times piece cited at the top of this entry, "anti-armor weapons and rifles would allow the rebels only to consolidate their gains and hold the territory they have." Hell, arms of any kind probably aren't the answer. Command and control, communications, leadership, and unity of effort are all much more significant roadblocks to rebel success than simple firepower or a lack of weapons.
What would the rebels need to do the job themselves? Well, they're in the process of getting their asses kicked by Qaddafi's guys, and that's while operating in circumstances that permit NATO forces to engage any regime elements that seem to be "moving forward." So they need strike aviation. They need supporting fires, meaning mortars at the very least and probably heavy artillery. They need mobility and communications and some kind of basic ability to execute combined arms maneuver. They need stuff you can't unpack from a crate on the Benghazi docks. They need capabilities, not just weapons.
Whatever collection of disgruntled Libyans makes up whatever we're calling "the rebels" or "the opposition" -- "They range from street toughs to university students (many in computer science, engineering, or medicine), and have been joined by unemployed hipsters and middle-aged mechanics, merchants, and storekeepers," says Anderson -- the force as presently constituted is simply not capable of defeating regime forces. This isn't an equipment problem. Let's be clear about what this is: we're not just talking about augmenting the capabilities of a standing military force -- we're talking about creating an alternate Libyan army. We have some limited experience standing up military forces from scratch, but next to none organizing, training, and equipping forces to successfully wage an insurgency, or even a mostly-conventional civil war. And let's also be clear about the fact that the creation of such an institution out of whole cloth is a lot bigger than simply providing equipment: it means working to develop doctrine, organizational structure, to recruit, to train, to sustain the force, to establish methods of employment... it means building a proxy army.
When you run the cost-benefit on all that, it almost certainly makes sense for the needed capabilities to be provided directly by coalition forces rather than spending months or perhaps years and hundreds of millions to billions of dollars trying to create them in a rump Libyan force. Which brings us to what ought to be the bottom line, from the perspective of U.S. strategy: arming rebels is not the most effective solution to regime-change problem. If we want to enable the opposition to seize control of the country and we don't want to commit ground troops, why don't we simply pledge to use air and naval strike to target every single positively identified piece of regime military materiel or maneuver formation (though that might not even work)? Maybe this stretches the UN mandate a little bit, but a covert campaign to supply insurgents with weapons seems to brush uncomfortably up against the arms embargo. So now we're back where we started: U.S. airpower and "enablers" facilitating an offensive campaign by the rebels, something we've pledged isn't going to happen. Hell, let's just plow a bunch of time and money into creating a never-ending cascade of unintended consequences instead. It seems certain to end well.
I hear a lot of proponents for U.S. action saying things like "you have to consider the opportunity costs of inaction!" and "it's not like doing nothing is value neutral!" And that's fair enough. But to be frank, we ought to be biased towards inaction for the simple reason that it preserves our freedom of action later. Give guns to one party to a fight and you've made your bed. Horrifying as it may be to imagine "waiting it out" and bearing witness to a campaign of brutal repression, there are times when we may have to accept that uncertainty has the potential to be more dangerous than a return to the status quo. In such circumstances, it's hard for me not to conclude that errors of commission are much more painful and lingering than those of omission.