Now that NATO has arrived, as Libyans look to the future, all things are possible. That's the problem-all things are possible. On the up side, NATO has never failed. On the down side, now the alliance has its first opportunity.
This isn't like the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan -- the alliance has neither a compelling interest nor an unshakable U.S. commitment backstopping NATO at war. Even then, these examples are hardly reassuring. Case in point: Slobodan Milosevic held out so long in the face of the bombing campaign over Kosovo that many feared the alliance's resolve would give out before the Serbian strongman gave up.
Since Obama's election, NATO nations serving in Afghanistan have been looking over their shoulder to make sure the U.S. is still there. Compared to earlier battles, Libya is at the end of the earth of NATO's core interests. So the real question is, what the alliance will do if times get tough? What NATO will leave behind?
Even in the best-case scenario, where Qaddafi trips over a tomahawk, Libya will be a largely ungoverned space. In every conflict in the Islamic world since 9/11, Al Qaeda and its affiliates have tried to flood-the-zone, pouring in foreign fighters, turning the conflict into a recruiting poster, a training ground, and a launching pad for trouble elsewhere. Al Qaeda had a pipeline funneling fighters from North Africa to Iraq; surely they will try to turn it the other way round.
Rather than rush to Tripoli, NATO ought to sort through the opposition and make sure it's not backing the next Taliban. Next, they should focus on building the capacity of a legitimate opposition so that as they expand their influence, the rebels bring security, liberty and safety to the people -- rather than chaos, privation and opportunities for a slew of Al Qaeda wannabes.
James Jay Carafano is Deputy Director, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.