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Atlantic City

April 10, 2011

So, uh, had no idea that was going to go over so well. Front page? All day? Sweet crumbs. Thanks, of course, for all the compliments, but extra thanks to everybody who commented, both at The Atlantic and on Twitter – far better to be disagreed with than to not be heard at all, and I’m actually quite pleased with the comments I’ve read.

On that note, a couple conversations jumped out at me during the day that I was, unfortunately, too busy to address immediately. In particular, I’d like to (belatedly) jump into the conversation between Mark Lynch, Andrew Exum, and Gulliver:

Really good points on all sides. Mark’s right in noting that whether the US gives them guns is irrelevant to whether the rebels get guns. Of course they’re going to get guns. It’s Libya. The black market has been going strong there for decades, and where there’s war there’s money to be made. Qaddafi’s been a villain since Airwolf and isn’t particularly popular in his neighborhood – I’d be shocked if Egypt hasn’t already been hard at work arming the rebels.

But as Gulliver points out, the question of whether the U.S. provides the guns is not irrelevant to the U.S. For us, there’s no real winning scenario in Libya right now: either Qaddafi wins and we’re sad; the rebels win and… we’re probably sad since we’re on the hook for post-conflict reconstruction in a country we know almost nothing about; or there’s a stalemate and we’re stuck hanging around yet another desert wondering how the hell we got there.

In any of these scenarios, we do not want to have provided more small arms. We really don’t. As I outlined, we have a lot to lose, both from a humanitarian perspective and a national interests perspective, but very little to gain from providing free hardware to a rag-tag rebellion that can’t hold territory. I ask this in all seriousness, because I really can’t find any answers: can anybody tell me how we would benefit?

Steve Metz brings up the idea of leverage, suggesting that by providing guns we gain leverage, and somehow that’s important, because if we don’t support the rebels, they… won’t do what we want after the shooting stops? They’ll sideline us in the political reconstruction process? They won’t take our interests into consideration further down the road? I’m not sure. And aren’t there more valuable and ingratiating avenues to take that don’t involve weaponry?

And really, what sort of leverage does providing arms actually gains us*? My instincts say Ex is right on: we only have leverage when we continue to have something of value to provide. With more complicated systems, our expertise and continued access to replacement parts and supplies is important and can help ensure that we remain relevant to the political discussions that follow war. With AK-47s, replacement parts and ammo can be purchased from any state (or non-state actor). Gratitude is fleeting. Guns are not.

* Would love solid research on this, if anybody has any. Otherwise, I might’ve found a thesis topic.


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