U.S. Mulls Arming Libyan Rebels

The Obama administration is taking the position that the United Nations arms embargo on Libya does not prohibit countries from providing arms to the rebels who are fighting to overthrow the Gadhafi regime. The U.S. argument is that by authorizing "all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya, the U.N. Security Council allowed an exception to the arms embargo. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that no "decision" has been made to provide arms to the rebels, but other U.S. officials say it is under active consideration. NPR's Tom Gjelten speaks to Michele Norris about the latest.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The United States and allied governments have another option should they want to put even more pressure on Moammar Gadhafi. They could provides arms to the rebel forces seeking to overthrow the Gadhafi regime. The United Nations Security Council has imposed an embargo on armed shipments to Libya. But at the London conference today, Secretary of State Clinton said the U.N. resolutions do not prohibit arming the rebel forces.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): There could be legitimate transfer of arms if a country were to choose to do that. We have not made that decision at this time.

NORRIS: And joining us now in the studio is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, let's take that statement apart. Given that the United Nations has Libya under this arms embargo, how can the U.S. or other governments argue that arming the rebels would not violate that U.N. resolution?

TOM GJELTEN: Michele, I'm going to get a little legalistic with you for a second, OK?

NORRIS: OK.

GJELTEN: There are two resolutions. The first was resolution 1970, which was passed in February. Paragraph 9 of that resolution established the arms embargo and it did apply across the board. You can't send arms to Libya, not to anyone. But then you had resolution 1973, which was passed about two weeks ago. That second resolution authorizes governments to take all necessary measures to protect civilians in Libya.

And it specifically says governments can take those measures not withstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970. That's the arms embargo resolution. So in the U.S. view, that means that if in order to protect civilians, it becomes necessary, for some reason to send arms to Libya, that would be OK, not withstanding the arms embargo. Because protecting civilians takes precedence over the arms embargo.

NORRIS: And you mentioned important words - in the U.S. view. Secretary Clinton said that this was the U.S. interpretation of the resolutions. Any indication that other governments share that interpretation or perhaps see things a bit differently?

GJELTEN: There could be other interpretations. The language here is a little bit ambiguous. And you know, Michele, this would not be the first time that different governments interpret a U.N. resolution differently. Remember the Iraq War? The United States argue that that was legal on the basis of U.N. resolutions. Other governments vigorously disputed that.

NORRIS: Let's look at the second part of Secretary Clinton's statement that the United States and its allies have not yet made a decision to arm the rebels. Is that actually under consideration? How would a decision like that be made?

GJELTEN: The short answer is yes. Now, officially that would be a military step. It would be assisting the rebels militarily and so far the United States and other governments have said that's not what they're doing, or at least that's not what the United States and its NATO allies are doing. But other countries could take that step with the tacit support of the United States and its allies. That's the other scenario.

NORRIS: And what kind of arms would they possibly be talking about? For the most part, rebel forces don't seem to have a lot of military training or clear chain of command.

GJELTEN: Well, Michele, a senior military official told us that the weapons the rebels most need are rocket propelled grenades, RPGs, because with those they could stop Gadhafi's tanks. Now, two things about that. One, you have to find a way to get those RPGs to them. That would require some kind of commandos or somebody delivering the weapons.

And, second, even though the RPG is a fairly simple weapon, it does require some training. So it would presumably require some outside forces on the ground, not U.S. forces, but somebody would have to show them how to use them.

NORRIS: Is it possible that this might be the strategic use of language to send a message to Gadhafi?

GJELTEN: We've seen a lot of psychological operations in this war meant to intimidate Gadhafi, make him nervous. This could be part of that as well.

NORRIS: Tom Gjelten, thank you very much.

GJELTEN: Anytime.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

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