US should use caution when aiding rebel groups

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The United States has a long history of aiding coups against unfriendly regimes, only to watch the the rebel groups it aided become unfriendly. And the new regimes often have gone on to commit human rights abuses of their own.

In some cases, the goal was to stop the spread of Communism. That was an aim of covert activities backing early coups in Guatemala and Iran.

More recently, US officials backed a coup in Honduras. The newer regime has been particularly brutal and oppressive; this essay published in the New York Times lays out some of the problems.

I had this in mind as I watched last night's presidential debate. And when the topic turned to uprisings and conflicts in the Middle East, I was glad to hear President Barack Obama urge caution in picking sides. He had this to say on Syria, via an excerpt from CNN's transcript of the debate:

"What we're seeing taking place in Syria is heartbreaking, and that's why we are going to do everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition. But we also have to recognize that, you know, for us to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step, and we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping; that we're not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region."

Romney made similar remarks:

"And so the right course for us, is working through our partners and with our own resources, to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a — in a form of — if not government, a form of — of — of council that can take the lead in Syria. And then make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves. We do need to make sure that they don't have arms that get into the — the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road. We need to make sure as well that we coordinate this effort with our allies, and particularly with — with Israel."

The idea that the US shouldn't put weapons and resources into the hands of the wrong people is good, but history shows that American officials haven't done a good job at that. While Obama and Romney each say the US ought to be careful in choosing its alliances, I'm not convinced that either administration would be careful enough.

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