To cut to the chase, let's focus solely on immediate outcomes, with the long term up for grabs. That is, we cannot say whether Libya will be a happy and stable place in one, five or ten years. Besides, we need to be fair to the goals of the operation: protect civilians/regime change.
In that narrow formulation, NATO, by aiding the rebels, achieved its goal of changing the government of Libya and protecting many (not all of the citizens) from Qaddafi's threats. And this would be NATO's fourth big win of the post-Cold War era:
- NATO bombing (not UN) and IFOR/SFOR ended the Bosnian wars and kept the peace until NATO left (well, the US and Canada left), letting the EU take over.
- NATO bombing (not UN blessed) and KFOR stopped the massacres of Kosovar Albanians and kept the peace since, with a few bumps along the way. Now, we can ponder whether this was a good or bad thing, as the KLA and its successors did not have clean hands. But the goal was to impose an agreement on Serbia. Three months later: voila.
- NATO intercedes quickly in a brewing conflict in Macedonia between Albanians and Macedonians, providing the military cover for a EU monitoring mission and some incentives for respecting the Ohrid accords.
- NATO bombs Libyan targets in support of rebels, leading to regime change.
So, we can think about the similarities and differences among these apples and oranges. Two were preventative--Macedonia and Libya. In four of the five, NATO pretty clearly took sides--just not in Macedonia so much. One involved serious counter-insurgency (Afghanistan), two involved supporting an insurgency (Kosovo, Libya), and two involved enforcing a peace agreement (Bosnia, Macedonia). The one with the most significant commitment in terms of $$, casualties and general willingness to engage in a ground campaign--Afghanistan--is, counter to our notions about resolve and commitment, least successful thus far.
Anyhow, NATO is 4 and 0 in its post-cold war missions with two missions yet to be decided, but even a 4-2 record will still be better than my media record of this week where both interviews paid little attention to the NATO-related script and asked questions about Libyan politics, of which I know bumpkus.