Though they finally engaged this week, every day of America's and the Western allies' prolonged inaction during the Libyan revolt put NATO's credibility at risk. Each rebel death seemed a painful reminder of a lesson established by Jimmy Carter's inept handling of the Khomeniites' takeover of Iran and George H.W. Bush's betrayal of Iraqi Shiite rebels in the first Gulf War, that "to be America's enemy is dangerous, to be its friend is fatal."
So, as was the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, a new coalition has entered the fray in Libya. And like in the previous two interventions, we know we want regime change, but we don't quite know what to do if things get ugly afterwards.
Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke was paraphrased as saying "no plan survives contact with the enemy." Perhaps that was what Barack Obama, a master of disinformation, was thinking when he said on Tuesday that America's "Exit Strategy" would begin this week. That was a rather unusual pronouncement considering that so far, not only is there no real exit strategy for Libya, but we don't even have a clearly defined entry strategy.
As of today, NATO left the the US disappointed by only agreeing to assume responsibility for the No Fly Zone, leaving attacks against Gaddafi's ground troops the responsibility of whomever will take that role. It will likely fall to the US, the UK and possibly Canada and France to assume that responsibility.
There is a school of thought present among a certain category of Western "progressive" whose devotion to Marxist ideology makes them consider capitalism and perceived imperialism to be worse crimes than the Taliban's brutality and its denial of civil rights and education to Afghan women, or to the fratricidal bloodbath that would have consumed Iraq if the coalition had withdrawn prematurely. But them aside, notwithstanding the lack of effective strategies for Afghanistan and Iraq, no reasonable person would argue the world isn''t better off for having the Taliban and Saddam Hussein removed from power.
So far, no one knows much about the Libyan opposition, much less what a government that replaces Gaddafi will look like, but we do know a world without Gaddafi running a country is a better one.
The precedents for Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq may be in the presence the US maintains to this day in Germany and Japan, decades after the 2nd World War concluded. Those countries are now democratic and among the most stable and prosperous in the world. What this teaches us, but no one is willing to admit, is that like in the cases of other successful major military interventions, the only real exit strategy is to wait until the job of stabilizing a country is complete.