Thursday, March 31, 2011
Steve Coll on Libya: Don't Arm The Rebels

"The rationale for French, British, and American intervention in Libya was humanitarian. Qaddafi said he would slaughter Benghazi’s citizens; he had the means and opportunity to do so; he had a track record that suggested his rhetoric should be taken seriously. In those circumstances, intervention under international law was justified."


"It might be justifiable to arm the rebels if that were only way to achieve the humanitarian objectives of the intervention. Yet there isn’t any evidence that it would be necessary to do so to defend Benghazi as a sanctuary. It seems clear that Benghazi can be defended from the air by NATO, even if that requires enforcing 'no-drive' zones occasionally. That may be expensive and the aerial operations may last longer than American or European publics might wish, but if those are the decisive points then the intervention should not have been undertaken in the first place and Benghazi’s civilians should have been left to their fate; the high cost and indefinite duration of the aerial intervention was completely predictable. It cannot be policy to protect the lives of tens of thousands of Libyan civilians only if the intervention meets certain standards of cost effectiveness from week to week."


"[C]onducting [weapons] training and supply, covertly or overtly, would turn the Obama Administration’s intervention from a humanitarian action designed to protect civilians into the promotion of proxy war devoted to regime change, with civilians as prospective collateral damage.

There is time to try to force out Qaddafi by enforcing the no-fly, no-drive zone; enforcing sanctions; and increasing the political pressure on his regime. If it is really necessary to do something more ruthless in order to overthrow him in a timely way, then it would be better to use the elasticity of the U.N. resolution, and the cover of air strikes, to target precisely culpable regime commanders or facilities the Libyan leader values, while quietly communicating ultimatums to Qaddafi and his sons. Precise NATO bombing in Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to give up a lot faster than the operations of the Kosovo Liberation Army ever would have—and the K.L.A. looked like the Wehrmacht in comparison to the rebels who have been racing up and down Libya’s highways in recent days.

It might not be illegal to arm the Libyan rebels at this stage, but it would be wrong, unnecessary, impractical, and self-defeating."

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