Should We Arm the Libyan Opposition? The Short (and Long) Answer Is No

Means and ends: The absence of clarity in our Libya policy survived the No-Fly Zone plus debate; it won't survive the debate over arms for the rebels. Our stated goal -- protection of civilians -- cannot be achieved over time without accomplishing our unstated objective: the removal of Gaddafi through military defeat or negotiations that forces his departure from Libya.

The president ruled out regime change (at least by us) in his NDU address. What other objective could we have in arming the opposition if we're not trying to give it an offensive capacity to take the back the territory it has lost and push forward to Tripoli and victory over Gaddafi? Clearly stating this as our goal would almost certainly convert the coalition of the willing (at the UNSC, NATO, Arab League) into a coalition of the unwilling. It would also make the president look weak, vacillating and inconsistent as if he really had no strategy.

It won't work: Arming the opposition with anything other than an offensive capacity to actually take the battle to Gaddafi's forces and to Tripoli would make little sense. But doing that would involve training, logistical support and coordination with NATO advisers that would rapidly convert a no fly zone plus into an on the ground presence.

And that would take time and commitment; and if there were US/NATO weapons, our supervision. However courageous and motivated the rebels, do they have the degree of expertise to use these weapons systems. The answer based largely on television/internet images of a bunch of young men with turned around baseball caps and Euro and American logoed garb is no. And why we'd want to provide small arms, RPGs or shoulder-launched missiles that could end up on the black market, or worse being used against us, makes no more sense.

It sets a terrible precedent: The Arab spring and winter currently roiling the Arab world is just beginning. We really have no idea how it's going to play out.

In Egypt and Tunisia, perhaps well, and within the parameters of cohesive states and institutions without much violence; But in places like Bahrain, Yemen; or in Syria and Iran, we don't know. The last thing America needs to be doing is arming the Libyan opposition and setting ourselves up for pressure to arm everyone else in the name of freedom and democracy. Great powers do behave inconsistently and hypocritically, according to their interests; we can certainly choose who we want to support and who we don't; but this is such an obvious trap; no amount of verbal gymnastics will explain why we're arming the Libyans and not the Syrians should that situation erupt into civil war and the regime launches systematic repression.

Who is the Opposition? The fact is we know and we don't; and both realities should give us pause. With devolution of power comes devolution of information. And we know very little. The opposition figures we have some sense of - those the President says we've vetted -- may be credible -- former regime supporters; professors, lawyers, doctors, Libyans who have returned from abroad, patriots all. But are they doing the fighting? And will they or those with the guns be in charge at the end. The presence of al-Qaeda elements -- though in what numbers -- is also a major problem. But so is competency and coherence. Giving these guys American guns in what promises to be a prolonged struggle -- with fighting in civilian areas -- and an anger and revenge quotient very high ought to give us pause. Once we arm them, we own them; like it or not, we bear responsibility for their actions.

Success or Failure: the President was a reluctant intervener. He went into this with a kind of a strategy - to use a No Fly Zone plus to press Gaddafi in the hopes that over time the regime will crack, the Libyans in Tripoli will rise up, someone will launch an internal coup; or a well-placed J-Dam will find the Colonel's quarters. This policy may or may not work. And it may well have to be adjusted. But we shouldn't compound our problems by doing things that don't make sense because we're stuck.

Our policy in Libya was always a tough choice between bad options. It was a war of discretion or choice, not vital necessity. And the president chose. In such circumstances, the standards for acting and judging are quite high. That's why our policy isn't about right or left; liberal or conservative; Democrat or Republican; even right or wrong. It should be about dumb or smart. And arming the Libyan rebels is a very dumb idea.