At the beginning of his conference call today, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes mentioned the London conference attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She met with coalition partners and members of the Libyan opposition, and he said the conference agreed on a dual track of responsibilities for the mission. But he also let slip, in reference to another question, that the conference discussed planning for a post-Gadhafi Libya. That may be prudent, but you basically have a set of officials far removed from the ground making decisions on the future of a country while running a military mission that supposedly does not include a mandate for regime change. In fact, the leaders at the London conference all agreed that Gadhafi had to go.
Now, there are UN resolutions that allow for a number of tools, including sanctions and economic freezes and embargos, that clearly are designed to remove Gadhafi from power. But Secretary Clinton went well beyond that when she intimated that the US could arm the Libyan rebels without violating current UN restrictions:
Hillary Clinton has paved the way for the United States to arm the Libyan rebels by declaring that the recent UN security council resolution relaxed an arms embargo on the country.
As Libya’s opposition leaders called for the international community to arm them, the secretary of state indicated that the US was considering whether to meet their demands when she talked of a “work in progress”.
The US indicated on Monday night that it had not ruled out arming the rebels, though it was assumed this would take some time because of a UN arms embargo which applies to all sides in Libya.
But Clinton made clear that UN security council resolution 1973, which allowed military strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, relaxed the embargo. Speaking after the conference on Libya in London, Clinton said: “It is our interpretation that [resolution] 1973 amended or overrode the absolute prohibition of arms to anyone in Libya so that there could be legitimate transfer of arms if a country were to choose to do that. We have not made that decision at this time.”
I just think that any talk of a limited mission, given this development, is just foolhardy. And while Rhodes insisted on the call that the opposition in Libya has not ask for the coalition to engage in regime change, they are asking for arms so they can do it themselves. I don’t know what else you can call that.
Mahmoud Shammam, the council’s head of media, told a press conference at the Foreign Office: “We asked everybody to help us in many ways. One of them is giving our youth some real weapons.
“If you look to the reports that you have from the streets of Libya or from the cities of Libya you will see that our people have very light arms. You can see that just regular cars are fighting with machine guns. We don’t have arms at all, otherwise we finish Gaddafi in a few days. But we don’t have arms. We ask for the political support more than we are asking for the arms. But if we get both that would be great.”
I can’t think of another uprising in the Arab world where the opposition asked the international community to arm them. Yes, in Libya Gadhafi threatened a massacre, we’re all well aware of that. But arming rebels takes this to an entirely new level. And we simply do not have the kind of information about the rebels, as virtually everyone associated with this mission admits, to make informed decision about the consequences of that.
UPDATE: Then there’s the little item that the new head of the rebel military lived for two decades in suburban Virginia and nobody can figure out what he did for a living there. Maybe he’s just a run-of-the-mill exile who returned to help his country, but the proximity to Langley and the history of intelligence assets leading opposition movements in US wars does point to one option.