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Arming Libya’s Rebels: Overdue Idea or ‘Disaster in the Making’?

March 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that the U.S. has not yet decided whether to send weapons to Libya's struggling opposition movement. Jim Lehrer discusses the arms issue with the Institute for Policy Studies' Emira Woods and Mansour El-Kikhia of the University of Texas at San Antonio.
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JIM LEHRER: In Washington, Secretary of State Clinton said late today the administration has not decided yet whether to arm the rebels. That issue has been under intense discussion lately.

And we join that debate with Emira Woods, co-director of the Foreign Policy in Focus Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Washington, and Mansour El-Kikhia, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He’s a longtime Libyan human rights activist.

And, Professor Kikhia, what do you think? Should the rebels be armed?

MANSOUR EL-KIKHIA, University of Texas at San Antonio: Well, you know, I’m an advocate, of course. And I think I really have thought of this for a long time.

In fact, I brought — I was talking to the head of the security forces in Benghazi, the Abdul — anyway, I talked to him. And he gave me a list of things he needed. And I supplied it to the American administration, and just simple things, like body armor, like hats, like your hats and boots, and some stuff for protection. And they were studying it, been studying it for three weeks.

You know, you can’t win against Gadhafi’s armor. He has something like 3,500 tanks, rocket launchers, very, very, very tough indeed. And the American foreign policy really is really funny in this sense. They say that Gadhafi is illegitimate on the one hand, and then they don’t want to do something about helping remove him.

Well, this is a decision that America has to make, not Libyans, Libyans are saying: We need your help. We want you to help us remove this ogre. And it’s up to you now.

How long it takes, I don’t know.

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Woods, how do you feel about it?

EMIRA WOODS, Institute for Policy Studies: Well, the world has watched the tyranny of Gadhafi and his machinery. And it would be a shame to watch the continued slaughter of innocent civilians. But I do think that arming the opposition could probably be a disaster in the making.

What you have is a standing U.N. resolution, Resolution 1970, called for an arms embargo of Libya, called for an explicit effort to not have a region that’s already awash with arms.

And, let’s remember, the arms in Libya, much of it was supplied by American arms dealers. But to now arm the other side could leave civilians in even greater harm’s way. So, we are all very much in solidarity with the people of Libya, especially after we have seen this spring arise in Tunisia, in Egypt.

But arming the opposition, it’s moved them from being pro-democracy forces, to being rebels, to now being fighters, to even being child soldiers. And I think we have to be concerned, concerned about the flood of weapons and what that means to civilians, concerned about private military contractors, the Blackwaters of this world, and what that could bring to an already tense situation, but also concerns about this fragile coalition that’s been cobbled together.

Let’s remember, the African Union has been probably the loudest voice, basically calling out in opposition to the airstrikes and in opposition to a very militarized solution to this crisis, underscoring the need for a political resolution. It may not be the hammer of the military that resolves this one, but a combination of particularly political and also economic pressure on the regime.

JIM LEHRER: Professor, how do you respond to that?

MANSOUR EL-KIKHIA: Well, I’m sorry. I tend to disagree.

I think Yves Montand once said that pacifists tend to think that wolves are vegetarians. They’re not. These words will not deter Col. Gadhafi from destroying the cities that he goes into. This is one. And, secondly, the arms embargo, you’re not really impacting Gadhafi, because as you can see, he has enough arms to blow up the whole country at will.

It’s the people who need the arms most that don’t have it. The other factors, you’re talking about international law. International law, it can be interpreted in many, many, many ways. And these people who are fighting Mr. Gadhafi are, in fact, civilians. Yes, they’re not — they’re not — now, we have the professional soldiers.

And professional soldiers don’t have the weapons that they can use against Gadhafi. Therefore, they have to shuffle back all the tanks, the bad tanks that have been hit by the coalition to try to fix them and put them up so they can meet Gadhafi.

But they’re no match for this huge amount of military hardware that this regime has. And the regime will use it to the utmost, to his utmost capacity. The idea that he’s up for some compromise or for — that’s not Gadhafi. It means you don’t know Gadhafi.

We know him. We have lived with him for 30 — for 40 years. We know what he’s capable of. And much of the world has seen what he is capable of in the last four weeks.

JIM LEHRER: You heard that, Ms. Woods. There’s no compromising with Gadhafi. He has to be destroyed military. You heard what the professor said.

EMIRA WOODS: Well, clearly, as a Liberian, we know well the history with Gadhafi. It goes back to support of Taylor.

And many of us thought that there would not be a resolution to the crisis when Taylor had his grip on the Liberian people. I think, in the case of Libya now, what we see is an incredible people’s movement that has come to the fore, just as it came to the fore in Tunisia and in Egypt.

But we have to understand it’s also rising in other countries. It’s Djibouti. It’s Yemen. It’s around the world you have now these uprisings of people. And will the international community respond by arming all sides in each of those conflicts? I don’t think so. I think we need to think of other tools in our international toolkit to respond to crises like this.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the professor’s specific point? If the rebels, if the citizens are not armed, they’re going to be destroyed by Gadhafi’s army, because they’re outmanned and they’re outarmed?

EMIRA WOODS: I think, clearly, we have to use all means to protect the civilians. I think that was Resolution 1973 of the U.N., to protect the civilians.

But arming the civilians takes a step further that was not in Resolution 1973, takes a step further, from protecting to actually creating combatants in a conflict and arming them. And again, many of these combatants are young. They are poorly trained. They are child soldiers.

And in a situation like this, we want to make sure that we first do no harm. Arming these opposition forces could well undermine their movement and create even more chaos for civilians on the ground.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that? Would it create more chaos and undermine the movement, Professor?

MANSOUR EL-KIKHIA: No. Please, I want to make something very clear, first of all.

I’m not advocating arming those kids, the 17-year-old children. We have three generals. We have Abdul Fatah Younis. We have El-Hariri. And we have Mousa (INAUDIBLE). These are the heads of the armed forces in Libya, which are professional soldiers that have, in fact, defected from Gadhafi, and they are professional soldiers. And they know how to use those weapons.

This is what I’m advocating. I’m not advocating giving those weapons to those young kids. Those young kids are moving there on just — on pure energy and hatred for Gadhafi. What I’m talking about, giving the weapons and arms and particularly anti-tank weapons to those professional soldiers whom we do have in Libya. I mean, you’re talking about solutions.

What other solution? I’m sorry. Give me a solution. You want to tell Gadhafi, Mr. Gadhafi, stop?

JIM LEHRER: I was going to say, yes…

MANSOUR EL-KIKHIA: Or are you going to have American troops? Yes.

JIM LEHRER: I was just going to say, let’s ask Ms. Woods.

You said, well, there’s got to be other means. What other means are available?

MANSOUR EL-KIKHIA: Yes.

EMIRA WOODS: Well, I think there are a number of means being put forward.

First, tighten up these financial sanctions. There is a machinery that holds Gadhafi in place, that has held him in place for 42 years. That machinery needs to be unwoven. So all of the network of bankers, we know already bankers throughout this world that have actually held Gadhafi in place, need to be held accountable, need to apply pressure at this critical moment.

There are particularly oil dealers and multinational oil corporations that have a huge sway in what happens in Libya. They have had for decades, in spite of Gadhafi’s seemingly madness, right? And they have had incredible sway.

They need to be held accountable. They need to also be on the right side of history here. And I think it is critical to use all levers of power that we can, not only military, but look at financial, look at economic, look at political pressures that can also potentially create an exit strategy for Gadhafi to make sure that there is a real resolution of this conflict.

JIM LEHRER: And stop the retreat of — the forced retreat of the rebels, as it was just reported by Lindsey Hilsum on the road going back to Benghazi? You think that — those means that you talk about can stop that?

EMIRA WOODS: Well, none of us have a crystal ball. It’s difficult to say what will happen. Either we arm them and there’s chaos, or we don’t arm them and it could be a very tumultuous role ahead.

But, clearly, what we need to do is to continue to use all of the tools in the toolkit to support the pro-democracy forces. Remember where they started. Remember the values of what they bring, standing for a change in an economic system that has not served their needs, standing for a change in a political system that has repressed them for decades.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

EMIRA WOODS: This is an amazing window of opportunity in history, and we need to use it well.

JIM LEHRER: Let me finally ask you, Professor, in a word, do you think that will work? Do you think that will stop Gadhafi’s troops?

MANSOUR EL-KIKHIA: No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Those bankers are not going to stop — are not going to stop Gadhafi’s army from moving forward in the next two days and bombing Benghazi again.

Listen, there’s one Arabic saying which is really wonderful over here. If you see the lion’s fangs showing, don’t think the lion’s smiling. I’m sorry. I mean, I would love to believe in the goodness, but I know I’m dealing with a nasty, nasty man who’s bent upon destruction.

JIM LEHRER: All right, thank you both very much.

EMIRA WOODS: A pleasure. Thank you.

MANSOUR EL-KIKHIA: Thank you.