The End of Liberal Interventionism

NEW DELHI – As the sand-storm season in Libya gathers power and pace, the bright early colors of the Arab spring are fading alongside the hopes and promise of change for peoples too long suppressed by despotic and inert governments. Despite more than three months of aerial attacks on Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s troops, a stalemate of sorts seems to have set in. Yet another “liberal intervention” appears to have lost its way.

The hopes that animated the intervention in Libya always seemed a bit out of place in a landscape steeped in ancient memories. Writing recently in The New York Review of Books about the coastal Libyan city of Derna, Nicholas Pelham described how between “the turquoise Mediterranean and the Green Mountains lie the ruins of the forums and churches Byzantium left behind.”

In Derna’s city center, “you see the better-preserved white-domed shrines to Sheikh Zubeir ibn Qays and 76 other companions of the Prophet Muhammed,” all slaughtered here by a Byzantine force in Hijri 69 (690 AD). This casual fact assumes significance when one considers that Derna sent more teenage volunteers per capita than any other city in the Maghreb to wage jihad in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And yet Derna’s citizens were among the first to rejoice when American and NATO sorties were launched to defend the rebel-held city of Benghazi and to attack Qaddafi in his lair in Tripoli. Such jubilation appeared to express the possibility of freedom from the tyranny of a dictatorship frozen in time and place. But now, amid mounting concern that Islamist radicalism lies just beneath the surface of the Libyan rebellion, all bets are off.