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Arming Arab Rebels

February 19, 2012

Senator McCain called today for arming Syrian rebels.

Just a year ago, Senator John McCain called for arming factions rebelling against the Libyan government of Muammar Qaddafi.  The temptation to follow that advice must have been tremendous.  The rebels had shown ingenuity and courage, if not exactly West Point military discipline, but Qaddafi’s well-financed military was pounding both rebels and civilians.

President Obama didn’t follow Senator McCain’s advice.  Instead, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton orchestrated a sequence of diplomatic events culminating in NATO-led air support for the rebels – no American casualties, relatively little American money spent, no American weaponry handed over to rebels of then-unknown background and intention.

The uprising that became the Libyan civil war broke out on February 15, 2011.  McCain called for American arms support on February 27, 2011.  The National Transitional Council declared an end to the civil war on October 23, 2011.

The initial product of American diplomacy was a resolution passed on February 26, 2011, by the U.N. Security Council.  Resolution 1970 froze Qaddafi assets and referred Libyan military action against unarmed civilian protesters to the International Criminal Court.  Continuing diplomatic efforts resulted in a second resolution, passed by the Security Council on March 17, 2011.  Resolution 1973 authorized a “no-fly” zone over Libya, and the exercise of “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians.  NATO operations began on March 19.

The strength of the rebellion initially took Qaddafi by surprise.  In the first two weeks, the government lost control of much of the country, including the entire eastern third.  And rebels were headed west along the coastal road, past Brega and Ra’s Lanuf, toward Tripoli.  But in March, the government rallied and reversed the rebels’ advance.  By March 19, when foreign military activity began, Qaddafi’s army was at the gates of Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising and the rebels’ de facto capital.

Despite the government’s advance, Obama held firm:  he would not engage unilaterally, but only with a coalition of countries acting under international authorization.  Getting consensus out of the 15 members of the Security Council is not often done quickly.  That last week, with Qaddafi bearing down on the rebels’ base, must have been excruciating.  But our President showed his steely spine.  At the last minute, he got his U.N. authorization, and intervention began.

A year later, it still remains to be seen whether the victorious Libyan rebels will fashion a democratic government, whether they will achieve civilian control of the still clashing military factions, and whether Libya will resume its oil-based prosperity.  But whatever Libyans make of this opportunity, it will be Libyans who make it.  All but the most inveterate Obama-haters concede that the President’s strategy was brilliant.

Now Senator McCain wants to arm the rebels in Syria.  We know relatively little about the rebels, and we have reason to be concerned that they would turn our arms against civilians of other ethnic groups or religious sects.  President Obama will never get another U.N. resolution authorizing the use of “all necessary means” to protect Syrian civilians – the Russians feel that we misused the Libyan resolution to go to war with Qaddafi’s government, and they will never agree to a similar resolution regarding Syria.

The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad is as repressive and brutal as the Libyan government of Muammar Qaddafi – any differences on this score are trivial.  Assad has to go.  But Obama doesn’t have the Libyan option available to him, and I see no reason that he will want to arm Syrian rebels any more than he wanted to arm Libyan rebels.  Obama always has a strategy, and I’m sure he has something in mind for Syria.  That strategy might have something to do with the Arab League.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Arab Spring (now in its second year) is the effect it has had on multi-national Arab institutions.  One example illustrates this:  in 2003, the Arab League voted 21 – 1 to condemn the invasion of Iraq to overthrow the brutal Saddam Hussein; in November 2011, the Arab League voted 18 – 2 to suspend Syria’s membership due to Assad’s brutal response to anti-government protests.  American cannot be the world’s policeman – not just because we can’t afford it, but because in the long run that policy generates too much opposition to be effective.  That does not mean that America is not leading, is “leading from behind,” or is falling into isolationism.  It just means that America is not leading with its fists.

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