The future of Libya was never terribly important to the U.S. That has now changed. Under the rule of the flamboyant Col. Moammar Gadhafi, Tripoli managed to garner a lot of attention, but, in fact, the country had only marginal strategic importance to the West. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted as much soon after the U.S. agreed to join a NATO effort on the side of the rebels seeking to topple the regime. Once NATO launched its operation in Libya, however, the stakes for Washington suddenly grew. And now more than ever, with Gadhafi out of power, Libya has become a test case for America and the West's ability to play a constructive role in determining the shape of the new Arab world.
If post-Gadhafi Libya does not become a nation with generally democratic, largely pluralistic and fairly liberal standards, the West's intervention will have been a failure. And America will have sent its clearest sign yet that it is impotent to influence the course of events in the Middle East.
The impression that America has become irrelevant is already taking hold in the region. In a recent interview with the Lebanese television network ANB, a leading Palestinian official dismissively declared that Washington "does not play a role any more in the Middle East." The intervention in Libya, ironically, did little to counteract that image. Washington seemed halfhearted in its participation, and the fight against Gadhafi seemed more difficult than it should have been, considering the magnitude of forces arrayed against the regime. The lingering stalemate made the mighty military forces of NATO seem less than awe-inducing.