Learning to Trust Libya’s Rebels
The world stands aghast at the possibility of multiple nuclear meltdowns near the center of its second-largest economy. Nothing much can be said or done until the danger and the radioactivity are contained. The fact that forty million people live in the region potentially affected―many more than the entire population of California―puts the stakes in stark relief. All the world must hold its breath while anonymous, heroic workers battle unknown and terrifying dangers to keep the worst from happening.
In the meantime, another high-stakes drama is playing itself out halfway around the globe. Already Secretary Clinton has met at least once with the Libyan rebels, as she must. Her job is to determine whether we and the West can trust them. France already apparently thinks it can.
If we give the rebels our support, we must rely on them to do several things. First and foremost, they must win. Second, they must treat their Western helpers and their own defeated rivals rationally after they do. That means at least: (1) acting with dispatch and compassion to unify the country; (2) forming a government with widespread popular support; (3) repairing relations with the outside world; and (4) letting the oil flow, for the mutual benefit of those inside and outside.
Secretary Clinton’s job is not easy. Without speaking the language or knowing the culture, and with the help of experts only recently recruited for the task, she must determine whether we can trust the rebels and their current or future leaders to do these things. Others will no doubt assist in the decision, but her judgment will probably control it. That is a heavy responsibility.
If Clinton gives the go-ahead, there is a lot we can do, by ourselves of with others, to help the rebels win. Probably the best option is to encourage the Arab League, which has called for a no-fly zone, to go ahead on its own. Several Arab nations, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, by themselves have air forces that no doubt could pulverize Qaddafi’s tiny one, let alone its runways and infrastructure. Far better that this be done by fellow Arabs than by any force from the West. We can help with advice and real-time electronic intelligence from behind the scenes.
The next best course of action would be to help arm the rebels. A few Stingers (or their modern equivalents, which are probably far more potent) in rebels hands could even the odds in half a day. But we have to be able to trust the rebels not to sell them to terrorists.
Other, less potent arms also could help. For example, the US might even the odds by giving the rebels some of our smaller remotely piloted vehicles, and perhaps even help pilot them. (Who outside will know where the electronic signals running the planes are really coming from?) Tank-busting missiles also would be useful. Presumably our contingency-ready armed forces have already prepositioned such arms, waiting for the executive decision to supply them. One hopes that’s what the ships massing nearby are for.
Finally, the US can supply the rebels with modern electronic communication, including AWACS planes out of range in foreign countries, Iridium telephones for anonymous, direct communication, and other ground equipment. Again, this equipment is probably prepositioned, waiting for the word to send it in.
So to say Qaddafi’s confidence now is braggadocio would be understatement. His forces are doing their best to take advantage of a delay that is unavoidable. We can’t create winners we can’t trust. So we have to get to know the rebels, find out whether we can trust any of them, and then, if so, find out whom best to trust and attempt to insure their leadership. The rebels have to understand that, just as we must expect them to exaggerate their peril to hurry us on.
But we can’t wait too long, both because we don’t know how much they are exaggerating and because timing is vital, if not everything, in war. So the pressure is on Secretary Clinton and her colleagues to make a decision.
But unless and until we signal unequivocally a decision to abandon the rebels for lack of trust, no one should mistake this interlude for a Qaddafi victory. With proper planning, the civil war can reverse its course in days once a decision is made. The world, Qaddafi, and the rebels themselves should know this.