In April, the president decided to give nonlethal aid to rebels seeking to overthrow a 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 nonlethal aid and President Reagan immediately signed it into law.
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.
The Obama case administration announced a far bolder goal: it has repeatedly said Moammar Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi’s forces.
But each time, the provision of nonlethal aid represents a shirking of responsibility. In both cases, the United States identified an important goal but was 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 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.
We will be providing the Libyan rebels with “vehicles, fuel trucks and fuel bladders, ambulances, medical equipment, protective vests, binoculars, and nonsecure radios.” Secretary of State Hillary 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 their dead and wounded brothers in arms. 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.
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 nonlethal aid is apparently being given. A serious policy would arm the Libyan rebels so that, if we won’t throw Gadhafi out, they can. And a serious policy would not cheer them into battle armed with “nonsecure radios” and binoculars. This 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. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.