The U.S. and the
European powers leaders helping lead the intervention are looking for
ways to get more involved and help bring the war to an end. Western
officials are increasingly turning to the same option that the U.S.
employed in Afghanistan in the 1980s: arm the rebels. In the U.S.,
Senators John Kerry and John McCain,
the leading Democratic and Republican foreign policy figures in the
Senate, have both suggested that the U.S. should arm anti-Qaddafi
rebels. So have Senators Joe Lieberman, Kent Conrad, and Mary Landrieu. In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of State William Hague are both signalling
they may arm rebels. At a panel discussion on Thursday night held by
the American University of Lebanon, the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl
reported that France, which has been by far the most aggressive Western
power in intervening, is considering arming the fighters.
U.S. has a long, complicated, and dark history of arming rebel groups
around the world. Our support for the anti-communist militias in
Argentina and Honduras led us to directly train
some of the fighters that later evolved into outright death squads.
Nixon-era CIA operations in Chile helped Augusto Pinochet's takeover by
military coup, which later ended with Pinochet's arrest as a war criminal for the mass murder and torture. The Nicaraguan contras, whom we armed in the 1980s to terrorize the Marxist government, instead terrorized civilians, whom they tortured and killed in large numbers. The U.S.'s support for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, remembered for their genocide of nearly 2 million Cambodians, is more ambiguous and complicated. At the very least, they enjoyed tacit U.S. tolerance as long as they fought Communist Vietnam.
cycle is a familiar one: rather than commit American lives to a murky
and uncertain conflict, the White House asks the CIA to find or create
local proxies that can do the fighting for us. We invariably find the
most skilled fighters, the most ruthless killers, who can best challenge
or outright topple whatever regime -- often communist, usually despotic
and deserving of ouster -- has earned American ire. But the conflict
often escalates and turns for the worse. Our killers turn out to be even
more brutal than their killers, or maybe they're not as unified as we
thought and turn against one another, or they end up targeting civilians
as well as enemy fighters.
The most common outcome of
U.S.-funded rebellions has been to create instability and violence that,
whether in the form of intractable insurgencies or low-level sectarian
fighting, tends to last far longer than whatever political conflict they
were meant to resolve. The flood of arms -- particularly the
easy-to-use, impossible-to-destroy, grimly effective Kalashnikov rifle
variants -- make weapons so prolific and so cheap that terrorism,
criminal gangs better armed than the police, and militias of every
political and religious stripe are all but impossible to stamp out. By
the time that CIA funding dries up, young men who have made their living
for years fighting on the American dime have no other way to support
their family than killing for hire. Wealthy, extremist sheikhs and
would-be sheikhs on the Arabian Peninsula are always happy to write
checks in pursuit of their Islamist dreams, as they have done in support
of Afghan and Pakistani militants for decades. Violence begets
violence, instability begets instability, and the U.S. tactic of arming
rebels has been incredibly successful at fomenting both, but has done
little to end either, often creating problems far outsizing those we
originally meant to solve.