Arm Libya’s rebels

President Obama has been leery of a no fly zone, for good reason. It would intrude U.S. forces into the conflict, without altering the balance of military power on the ground. If the rebels continue to lose ground, we’d risk getting sucked into a Serbia-style bombing campaign that would quickly shift the world’s attention from an historic Arab political awakening to yet another U.S. military intervention. 

The White House, however, may be even less enthusiastic about arming Libya’s rebels than enforcing a flight ban, especially if it looks like America is reverting to the unilateralism of the last decade. Instead of lobbying the U.N. security council for a flight ban, U.S. leaders should work to enlist key European allies and Arab partners in a coalition willing to give the rebels the tools they need to win. 

There’s no doubt that risks abound in any U.S. intervention, direct or indirect. Americans know little about Libya, or opposition leaders. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets this week with Libya’s main resistance group, the Interim National Council.) We don’t know how deep their commitment to pluralism and democracy really runs, or whether they could hold together with Qaddafi gone.   

Funneling weapons into the Libyan maelstrom could have some nasty unintended consequences. No one would want to see U.S. arms used to enable some new dictator or junta to seize power, or fuel a bloody civil conflict as happened in Iraq. And let’s face it: As a tribal society that lacks strong national institutions and a vibrant civil society, Libya is an inauspicious place for Arab democracy to take root. 

Still, such imponderables must be weighed against the opportunity to rid the world of one of its most capricious and brutal dictators. In his 42-year reign, Qaddafi has cowed his own people and meddled in several savage civil conflicts in a mad quest to anoint himself “Emperor of Africa.” He also has American blood on his hands, from a Libyan terrorist attack on GIs at a Berlin nightclub as well as the Lockerbie bombing. 

Refusing to help the rebels entails risks too. Should Qaddafi succeed in crushing the revolt, it would embolden other regional strongmen to put down popular protests by force, and possibly stopping Arab revolt dead in its tracks. If the rebels win anyway, they’d have no reason to heed American advice about how to build civil society and democracy. 

Of course, there are steps we and our partners could take short of arming and training the rebels. These include recognizing the Council as Libya’s legitimate government, jamming broadcasts by Qaddafi’s regime, and providing provide food, medical supplies and humanitarian aid Libya’s rebel-held east. Such steps would further isolate Qaddafi -- whose only international friends, tellingly, are Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez -- and create incentives for wavering Libyans to join the resistance. While all would be useful, there’s little reason to believe these steps alone would trump the brute logic of Qaddafi’s guns.

As for a no fly zone, if Arab nations want one, let them enforce it. Egypt, the region’s biggest air power, has over 500 combat-ready planes; Saudi Arabia has nearly as many fighters, mostly U.S.-made. That’s more than enough to ground Libya’s air force. 

It’s encouraging that the Arab League has finally found an Arab dictator that it won’t defend. But why stop there? America should play a vital supporting role, but Obama should challenge Arab states to take the lead in helping Libyans liberate themselves. 

Will Marshall is the president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute. 

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