From both left and right in Washington, the concern that “we don’t know who the rebels are” has increasingly permeated the debate on what to do next in Libya. This will only grow as more people realize that President Obama has involved the U.S. in a “kinetic military action” where U.S. prestige is dependent on the fate of the opposition.
The rebels must now achieve victory in order for the U.S. to withdraw in a manner that will not be seen as losing a war. Luckily the rebels are known to those who bother to look and there is much to commend them. Plus the reservations we have call for more engagement—not less.
At the political level, the rebels are led and represented by the recently formed “Interim Transitional National Council.” The Council lists its diverse 31 members on its web site along with their portfolios. France and Qatar have recognized the Council as the sole government of Libya. Secretary of State Clinton met with the Council chairman on Tuesday and the deputy chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Libya has been dispatched to the rebel capital of Benghazi.
The bottom line is that this opposition is the most transparent of all of the groups that have risen up in the Middle East recently. We know more about the rebels and their intentions than those who took to the streets in Egypt or Tunisia, or those who protest today in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. While they have not made the rounds in Washington, being otherwise occupied at present, they are eminently ‘knowable.’
Better still, their intentions are good. Since their formation last month, they have insisted that they seek to pave the way for a Libyan democracy. On Tuesday, they released a manifesto titled “a vision of a democratic Libya.” It calls for many of the prerogatives in our own Bill of Rights, and many of the institutions and balances that mark American democracy. Importantly, it “condemns intolerance, extremism and violence,” which looks a lot like an rejection of Islamism and its terrorist vanguard.
Of course, it is possible that some among this organization are opportunists who will lose their ardor for democracy once in power. It is a fair question whether the military elements below the Council share its goals. Many in the West are rightly wary of political vacuums that have been exploited in the Middle East by groups like Hezbollah, the Sadrist Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood (often aided by feckless U.S. diplomats urging inclusiveness).
Furthermore, as the civil war trudges on through weeks and months, foreign fighters with less palatable goals may be drawn in. The head of U.S. European Command said this week that intelligence had shown “flickers” of Al Qaeda among the rebels, although he went on to say that there is no evidence of a significant presence and stated that “the leadership that I’m seeing are responsible men and women who are struggling against Col. Qaddafi.”
Overall, the concerns about the rebels call for getting closer to them—not deliberating endlessly over whether to provide them with the aid they appear increasingly to need in order to beat Qaddafi on the ground. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the choice we have is not between Qaddafi, the rebels or a government run by Mother Teresa. We must chose between the former two—and our president already made our choice.
The sooner we provide arms, training and actionable military intelligence to the rebels, the sooner we can get better awareness of the rebels at an operational level. We also will gain the ability to influence matters, including insisting that any foreign fighters present be sent home and any Al Qaeda in the country be turned over to us or killed.
Time is not on our side. The sooner we sell arms and provide other assistance to the rebels, the sooner we can give them a better shot at victory and a successful end to the U.S. military commitment. Our involvement can also help them succeed at the high ideals to which their leaders ascribe.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-09. He is author of the new book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books).