Should the U.S. Provide Weapons to Libyan Rebels?

The question of whether or not to provide weapons to the Libyan rebels will be a major foreign policy decision for the Obama administration. The final choice and the outcome of the Libyan uprising – whatever they may be – will be scrutinized by historians and political scientists for decades to come. Researchers will dig for any cause-effect relationship between American or Western supply of arms and the success or failure of the anti-Qaddafi rebellion.

There is no shortage of historical precedent for arms sales to rebel forces. In 1980s Afghanistan, the U.S. covertly financed weapons and delivered them to Afghanistan via Pakistan. Explosives, Stinger antiaircraft missiles, and rifles, including over 3 million AK-47s, armed the mujahidin in the tribal areas of Afghanistan. The weapons helped turn the tide against the USSR, but they remained in Afghanistan far longer than the Soviet military. In what has become a sad and deadly irony, the weapons sent to the Afghans by the U.S. are now being used to kill and injure American soldiers.

A few years after Afghan victory, Slobodan Milosevic ordered the Yugoslav army to invade Bosnia and take siege of Sarajevo. For three years, the West debated military options such as providing arms to the Bosnians and bombing Serbian forces. An ineffective U.N. peacekeeping force was the limit of the Western response. The decision not to arm the Bosnians was a disaster. The Bosnians were trapped like sitting ducks, shelled and sniped for three years with little means to defend themselves. The consequence is a wide swath of white grave markers in the hills of Sarajevo.

The historical lessons of Afghanistan and Bosnia provide important context for the current debate over Libya. On one hand, the U.S. and its allies want to prevent an atrocity like the Bosnian war; on the other hand, the allies must be cautious with how they use weapons. Libya has a history of terrorism and some fear the rise of radical Islamic movements. The rebel forces fighting against Qaddafi seem to embrace democratic values, but there is no guarantee that Libya will suddenly transform into a cozy American ally. As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said about the rebel forces, “We don’t know as much as we would like to know and as much as we expect we will know.” In a worst-case scenario, Qaddafi could retain power and further oppress his people with newfound weapons caches.

The unknown is the greatest risk in war. Arming the rebels is akin to sending Libyans guns and crossing our fingers. Instead, the United States and its NATO allies should continue to support the rebellion with military and humanitarian support, such as the no fly zone, the bombing of strategic targets, and the provision of medical supplies. This policy will weaken Qaddafi’s loyalists, strengthen the resolve of the rebellion, and keep American weapons in the hands of trusted allied forces.

In this tumultuous period of Middle East history, the number of factors that the United States can control is limited, and providing arms to unknown rebels is a risk the U.S. cannot afford to take. Controlling the resources of the rebellion is the prudent choice to mitigate risk.

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