The civil war in Libya has hit a snag, from the perspective of the rebels and the international coalition. As quickly has the rebels gained oil cities along the eastern coast, they are now losing them. After meeting fierce resistance on the road to Sirte, the rebels appear in disarray, still outmanned and outgunned by Gadhafi’s forces. Even with the close air support from the coalition, Gadhafi’s forces have the better of it on the ground, because they’re actually an army and they have actual firepower.

This is why you’re hearing so much now about arming the rebels. British Prime Minister David Cameron brought it up in Parliament:

This message was reinforced by Mr Cameron in parliament on Wednesday.

“UN [Security Council Resolution] 1973 allows all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, and our view is this would not necessarily rule out the provision of assistance to those protecting civilians in certain circumstances,” he said.

“We do not rule it out, but we have not taken the decision to do so.”

“All necessary measures” is doing so much work in that UN resolution, it should strike for an eight-hour workday.

The White House is also considering arming the rebels, with the same justification. President Obama told NBC News yesterday that “I’m not ruling it out, but I’m also not ruling it in.” These are rebels that even the Administration cannot describe with any certainty; Admiral James Stavridis told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday about “flickers” of intelligence connecting the rebels to Islamic extremists. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it’s hard to know what to believe. And there’s certainly precedent for arming one side of a civil war with little information, and having it blow back.

The question of whether to arm the rebels underscores the difficult choices the United States faces as it tries to move from being the leader of the military operation to a member of a NATO-led coalition, with no clear political endgame. It also carries echoes of previous American efforts to arm rebels, in Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and elsewhere, many of which backfired. The United States has a deep, often unsuccessful, history of arming insurgencies [...]

One crucial voice, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has experience in the unintended consequences of arming rebels: As a C.I.A. official in the late 1980s, he funneled weapons to the Islamic fundamentalists who ousted the Soviets from Kabul. Some later became the Taliban fighting the United States in Afghanistan.

Not to mention the fact that you can’t just hand over weapons, you’d have to teach rebels how to use them. That means “trainers” on the ground. And there’s the point that, if you arm the rebels, they kind of stop becoming “civilians.” This really looks like it falls outside the UN mandate.

Marc Lynch has a compelling piece arguing that Obama had to act in Libya. I respect him but wonder what he thinks about this. If the Arab public has cheered taking up arms against Gadhafi, how will they think about a civil war and the death of Arabs at the hand of US-supplied weapons? Clearly the rebels wouldn’t turn in the arms, even if Gadhafi left.

We’ve already spent $550 million on this operation, and weapons aren’t cheap. I know it’s vulgar to talk about things like, you know, the cost of war, but there you are.

Public opinion has started to turn against this war after only a couple weeks. People support protecting civilians but that’s no longer the mission, clearly.

UPDATE: More from Glenn Greenwald on this. I’ll have video of my appearance on MSNBC about this soon.