Arming the rebels

The recent war/conflict/military police action in Libya has kind of overshadowed the fact that something really important is still happening in the middle east. Shit has seriously got out of control in Syria and Bahrain, and that’s disturbing enough. What is far more disturbing to me is what’s being discussed in Libya. Yes, the rebels are still fighting and NATO forces are becoming progressively more entrenched in what has become a full-blown civil war.

Many commentators in the United States (who you would think should know better than I do) are talking about providing weapons and training to the rebels. While they sorely need it, the USA doesn’t exactly have the greatest track record when it comes to arming groups of insurgents. For reasons that surpass understanding are completely understandable, those rebel groups tend to use those weapons and that training to kill people that the US wishes they wouldn’t. Sometimes they’re Americans.

But there may be other ways that the United States can arm the rebel groups – ways that are far less likely to get someone killed.

US Government invests in activist technology

The United States government is spending millions of dollars developing technology to help pro-democracy activists in the Middle East and China. Washington has begun to open-up about the projects which include a “panic button” that lets protesters wipe their mobile phones if they are arrested. State department official Michael Posner said that the US was investing money “like venture capitalists”. He also revealed that it was providing campaigners with technology training.

It’s hard to understand to those of us that wake up to technologies our grandparents couldn’t have possibly imagined, but there is a significant portion of the world that doesn’t have the kinds of access that we take for granted. That being said, cell phone technology has become pretty much ubiquitous, and with it has come new opportunities. As I’ve outlined as one of the central theses of this blog, the antidote to tyranny is free speech. By providing the ability for anti-government groups to communicate undetected, the United States hopes to keep any future governments from becoming tyrannical.

Who is this good for? As far as I can tell, only the people who live in the countries using the technology. There is no guarantee that this will work in the US’s favour, except insofar as democratic governments tend to be more motivated by trade and the opinions of the international community – both things that the United States can exert quite a bit of influence over. However, it is entirely possible that the technology will be used to overthrow pro-American tyrannical governments (like the one that just left got booted out of Egypt on its own terms after a huge popular revolt).

Sesame Street goes Pashtun

The United States is funding a Pakistani remake of the popular TV children’s show Sesame Street. In a new effort to win hearts and minds in Pakistan, USAID – the development arm of the US government – is donating $20m (£12m) to the country to create a local Urdu version of the show. The project aims to boost education in Pakistan, where many children have no access to regular schooling.

Just as free speech is a poison pill to tyranny, education is a poison pill to religion. The more educated the populace, the more likely they are to question the religious authority that controls them. Encouraging reading means encouraging critical thinking skills, which in turn encourages criticism. The irony is not lost on me that we have the religious establishment in Europe to thank for public education today. Once again, arming the rebels works for the rebels themselves (which would be us), but not so well for those that provide the arms. In the case of providing education to Pakistanis, the United States does indeed stand to benefit. The status quo there… isn’t exactly working out well for them these days.

There can be a benefit to arming those who are enemies of your enemies. However, despite what the cliche would have us believe, the enemy of my enemy may not remain my friend for long. It’s imperative that we take the long view when we provide powerful tools to those who share a common opponent, lest we someday find those same tools arrayed against us. By providing help in the form of non-lethal technology, we can ensure that at least we don’t have those tools fired at our heads. By providing help in the form of education, we can ensure that we find ourselves in a world filled with people who we can at least have a conversation with.

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