Contrary to headlines and official pronouncements, the most important event in the Middle East last week was neither the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Libya nor the commencement of the air strikes. Despite being relegated to the background, the plebiscite in Egypt establishing the basis for genuine democratic order; the stalled attempt to usher in a constitutional rule in Bahrain; and the ongoing turmoil in Yemen remain the more critical regional developments.
It is the events in the heart of the Arab world and not the disposition of Muammar el-Qaddafi's distant penal colony that will determine the future of the Middle East for generations to come. The challenge for Washington is how to sustain the momentum of the Arab Spring while dealing with the Libyan imbroglio.
All this is not to ignore or discount an obvious reality: The international community has made a prolonged commitment to Libya. President Obama has called on Qaddafi to leave while the Security Council has declared its mission to be the protection of all Libyan civilians.
The first temptation of any administration seeking to limit its participation in an unpredictable and protracted conflict is to enlarge its coalition. As such, Washington and its European allies took great comfort in the endorsement of the Arab League — an organization uniquely devoid of moral authority or military capability.