Furthermore, far more has changed than is yet appreciated. This war and the broader Arab Spring have begun shedding light on a new order that will affect more than the Middle East.
Four developments seem apparent, even as the dust still settles:
First, NATO and Western Europe are much closer to irrelevance than previously thought. Britain and France dragged a reluctant Obama administration into the air war through NATO. The U.S. contribution was supposed to be phased out almost immediately, but this proved impossible. The American military and taxpayer did the vast majority of the work in the skies above Libya.
The wealthy nations of Western Europe and what was once the free world’s primary defense mechanism now have no real expeditionary capability. They are free riders on America’s military, unwilling to divert more than a pittance from their expensive welfare states to the defense of themselves and a civilized order.
Second, in stark contrast, two noteworthy countries that punched well above their weight in this war were Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. While other governments convened diplomatic conferences, these two quietly took steps to ensure the rebels had the small arms and funding to fight against Qaddafi and provide essential services in the cities they had freed.
Third, America’s intelligence agencies and foreign policy establishment remain broken. The American taxpayer gets stuck each year with an $80 billion tab for intelligence, and yet was told repeatedly of the rebels in Libya that “we don’t know who they are.”
As with uprisings in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, the people we pay to keep watch failed to detect -- and then failed to understand -- the massive middle in Arab nations who want accountable government and basic rights.
Failing this first essential step, you can be sure we lack the ability to take the next step: influencing events in favor of American interests.
Fourth, all too many in our Washington foreign policy establishment seem unable to choose between imperfect options and subsequently construct effective policies. With Libya, many were willing simply to lament the suspected imperfections of the rebels. In so doing, they ignored the certainty that the rebels would be better than Qaddafi. Not only that, but in truth we had already passed the threshold question of the rebels' superiority by going to war on their behalf. Once we did that, the prewar status quo was no longer an option for us to choose.
The U.S. should influence events when we decide our critical interests are at stake—not just lament them.
Nowhere was this odd approach more apparent than the Obama administration’s de facto policy of prohibiting U.S. arms sales to rebels who wanted to fight for their freedom at the same time we were bombing their enemies. While the Obama staff probably thought this clever and nuanced, it was indicative of extraordinary policy dysfunction.
The exact future path of Libya is unknown, but events there since February have already done much to shed light on the future. Taken together, the fallout from the war and broader events indicate a world of accelerating political turbulence, new power dynamics, and institutions that the U.S. has relied on in the past that are no longer suited to the challenges we face.
Christian Whiton was a senior advisor in the Donald Trump and George W. Bush administrations. He is a senior fellow for strategy and public diplomacy at the Center for the National Interest and the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.”