Still a Risk: The Arab Spring May Go Horribly Wrong in Libya

Crowds in Benghazi celebrate the capture of Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam. Alexandre Meneghini / AP Photos

It still works.Western military intervention—no matter how halfhearted and apparently ineffectual—is still sufficient to tip the balance against a rogue regime. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi had the same distinctive qualities as his entire career: a strange mixture of the bloody and the farcical, like a cross between Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. But fall he did, even if, as I write, he has still eluded capture. This much is certain: his overthrow would not have happened without the support, mostly but not exclusively in the air, that NATO provided to the rebels against his rule.

It still works. Last week, exultant rebels in Tripoli clambered on Gaddafi's vainglorious statue of an American warplane in the grip of a mighty Libyan fist. Turns out that in the age-old game of missile-revolt-dictator, the political equivalent of rock-paper-scissors, missile still beats dictator. Slobodan Milosevic could have told him. So could Saddam Hussein.

It still works. The outcome in Libya was decided by the United States and its European allies. China may have the world's fastest-growing economy, but its leaders have been more or less irrelevant. Last week, they belatedly recognized the legitimacy of the rebels' National Transitional Council. Doing so only after the rebels were inside Gaddafi's compound redefines "behind the curve."

It still works. But it's not enough. Even as the world's media relayed the drama of the Last Days of Gaddafi, my thoughts were elsewhere. I was asking myself about Iraq, where 70 people were killed in a single day earlier this month. I was thinking about Afghanistan, where the war against the Taliban is far from won. I was wondering about Yemen, which still teeters on the brink of anarchy. Above all, I was worrying about Somalia, where Josette Sheeran of the World Food Program warns that 2 million people could die because the Islamist militants known as Al-Shabab are preventing the distribution of emergency food supplies to the famine-stricken south of the country.

Sure, I know the fighting in Tripoli provides quality footage for prime-time news. But let's zoom all the way out for a moment. Ten years ago, terrorists attacked New York and Washington. The result was a radical change to U.S. foreign policy. At the time, most people talked as if the principle of preemptive action was the novel thing about George W. Bush's post-9/11 National Security Strategy. It wasn't. Rather, it was his pledge "to extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent."

"We will actively work," Bush declared in September 2002, "to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world." President Obama may have been elected three years ago partly because Americans got fed up with the costs of that active work. But he has found himself obliged by the unexpected events of the "Arab Spring" to continue where Bush left off. How could he do otherwise? The 2002 strategy document declared:

America must stand firmly for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property.

Although widely seen as a hard-core neoconservative, Bush had aspirations that a bleeding-heart liberal could hardly repudiate.

The most obvious lesson of the Bush presidency, unfortunately, is that toppling the tyrant is the easy part. Ensuring that all those nice human rights now take root in Libya is going to be much tougher.

Since the beginning of the Arab revolutions more than six months ago, I have repeatedly warned that the chances of a happily-ever-after ending are much lower than the chances of escalating violence across the region.

Coming soon: the rebel factions in Libya get down to the serious business of fighting ... each other.