The events this past week in Algeria plus Mali's civil war have made it clear that (despite my first publications) stuff does spread. Arab Spring not only spread across boundaries (well, sort of), but fed dynamics that have caused conflict to spread throughout the region. The Libyan intervention fostered the flow of arms and people to Mali.
The questions this is currently raising are: did the Obama administration and others know that their actions would cause such second order consequences (side effects)? Should they have acted in 2011 to stop Qaddafi's attack on his people? The answers are: probably and probably. That is, the various folks probably did consider a bit that acting in Libya would have effects on the neighborhood--both positive and negative. We are noticing the negative ones. Perhaps positive ones might include restraint by some but not all threatened autocrats (this impact is probably lessened by the selective support for some autocrats--Bahrain, Saudi Arabia). It is not clear that not acting in Libya would have been better than the current status quo. Mass killings in Benghazi would have also had second and third order effects--refugee flows to Egypt and Algeria (not to mention more to increasingly xenophobic Europe), and so on.
The reality is that the Western governments were reacting to Arab Spring, not causing it, so the choices were quite limited: (A) support dictator x, (B) stand aside, (C) help depose dictator x. The policies have been inconsistent, with some of a, some of b and some of c. We do know that in the past that choosing A has consequences sometimes decades later (Argo!). Each of these choices has second and third order effects that may or may not outweigh the initial policy.
My favorite example, of course, is when the US invaded Iraq, it achieved its goal as narrowly defined as toppling Hussein. The second and third order effects included undermining the effort in Afghanistan, undermining the American economy, weakening the US standing in the world, and empowering Iran. Now those are some knowable, anticipated consequences that could have been avoided. Of course, we do not know how the world would have been different otherwise. Would Libya have given up its chemical weapons or would have faced a Syria in Libya? Not sure.
But the point is that the Bush Administration, which I admittedly love to pick on, had more choices and could have taken more seriously the possible downsides of invading Iraq. The Obama administration was faced with allowing a humanitarian disaster to occur on the edge of Europe (which matters more, of course, since Europe cares more about refugee flows that affect it) and with allies putting significant pressure to do something. Could they have done a better job in limiting the flow of arms and people beyond Libya? Not so sure. Our efforts at controlling borders has been lousy in places where we have 100k troops (Afghanistan). And the US was involved in trying to strengthen the Mali government's ability to deal with armed extremists. It didn't work out too well.
What this really demonstrates are two uncomfortable realities: that American power is and always has been limited--the US cannot just impose its preferences upon the world--it cannot always get what it wants or needs; and that governments are often faced with lousy choices and picking the least lousy is very hard.