In April, the president decided to give non-lethal aid to the rebels seeking to overthrow the regime. No, not Libya. Not Obama. Not April 2011.
It was April 1988, the president was Ronald Reagan, and the rebels were Nicaraguan Contras. On April 1 of that year, Congress passed a bill approving $48 million in non-lethal aid and President Reagan immediately signed it into law. This was after a first appropriation of $27 million in non-lethal aid in 1985, very close to the Obama administration’s $25 million for the Libyan opposition last week.
In important ways the two cases are different, indeed even resembling a photographic negative of each other with all the key aspects reversed. The Reagan administration wanted to give lethal aid. Its efforts to arm the Contras directly and legally were stymied by Congress until 1986, when $100 million was approved and the administration could have the CIA give American weapons to the Nicaraguan rebels. But even then the administration did not say that its goal was to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. Instead, the announced objective was to use the pressure of the Contras to force the regime to the negotiating table. And despite his clear emotional commitment to the Contra cause, Reagan never used American military power directly and threatened to use it only in the event of direct Soviet or Cuban intervention.
In the Obama case, the administration has announced a far bolder goal: it has repeatedly said Muammar Qaddafi must go. The official U.S. policy, then, is to overthrow the government of Libya and the United States has employed its military directly in bombing Libya. But the administration has not asked for lethal weapons for the rebels, and its military actions in NATO have at least officially been limited to humanitarian objectives such as protecting Benghazi from being overrun by Qaddafi’s forces.
There is only one way in which the two situations are identical: In both cases, the provision of non-lethal aid represents a shirking of responsibility. In both cases, the United States identified an important goal but was (and is) unwilling—due to Congress in the Nicaraguan case and to the president in the Libyan case—to provide the means to reach that goal.
This is a foreign policy problem, to be sure, but it is worse than that: it is an immoral position for our country to take. In both cases, we cheer on rebels who are risking and losing their lives every day. We seek their victory. We urge them to fight on for the cause, despite the fact that the other side is far better armed and trained, and is a real army. Yet we refuse to give them the means to win, so that the fighting drags on and every day some rebels die who would live if they’d had the weapons we are withholding.
Consider this: We will be providing the Libyan rebels with “vehicles, fuel trucks and fuel bladders, ambulances, medical equipment, protective vests, binoculars, and non-secure radios.” Secretary Clinton said we’ll be providing some halal meals, too. This will take them to the front lines, allow them to have lunch and see the enemy, and enable them efficiently to report back on the number of dead and wounded brothers in arms—or perhaps more accurately, brothers without arms—who those ambulances are removing. It is very close to what we did for years for the Contras, sending them into Nicaragua from bases in Honduras where they got rudimentary training and equipment unlikely to terrify the Sandinistas—watches, uniforms, and boots. Same for Libya: As the New York Post described U.S. policy in Libya in an editorial last week, “Team Obama finally announced it was putting American boots on the ground — but with no American troops inside them.”
It is said that mighty Qatar is sending some arms, and there have been reports about Egypt as well, but none of this is serious. The rebels are being cheered on and defended from complete defeat, but not given the ability to win. The quip, suggesting that "The only thing that is more dangerous than being America's enemy is to be America's friend," gains its black humor from episodes such as these in American national security policy. Immanuel Kant famously claimed that “he who wills the ends wills the means,” but he never spent much time in Washington.
A serious Libya policy would involve far greater American support for NATO’s actions in Libya, and it is remarkable after six decades of American grousing about European commitment to that organization to hear the British and French complain (rightly) about ours. A serious policy would recognize the Transitional National Council, through which the non-lethal aid is apparently being given. A serious policy would arm the Libyan rebels so that, if we won’t throw Qaddafi out, they can. And a serious policy would not cheer them into battle armed with “non-secure radios” and binoculars. The Obama administration clearly thinks it has achieved a nice compromise: we’re in but we’re not in, tough rhetoric but no men on the ground, help the rebels but give them no weapons. It is a formula, for stalemate and for more rebel deaths, unworthy of our country.
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was assistant secretary of State for Latin America in the Reagan administration.