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.
That such complications are only now being discussed openly suggests that seriously defective policymaking was at the heart of the decision to intervene. Indeed, not only has the effectiveness of that intervention been almost a daily disappointment to the Libyan rebels, who expected far more direct military aid from the United States and the West, but it has also exposed long-simmering resentments in the US about the state of the NATO alliance.
That is why US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has, far more explicitly than any of his predecessors, voiced frustration and more than a hint of anger at America’s NATO allies. “While all NATO countries voted to intervene in Libya,” he reminded them recently, “most [have] chosen not to participate in the actual fighting.” And even those that did soon ran short of ammunition, forcing an exasperated America to step into the breach yet again.
Understandably, Gates finds this situation, in which the US accounts for 75% of NATO’s military spending, completely “unacceptable.” Moreover, he believes that it is “unsustainable,” and that if the situation is not rectified, NATO faces a “dismal” future.
Meanwhile, as Gates was berating the NATO allies, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was bluntly warning African leaders that “authoritarian governments” ruled by “aging despots” were “no longer acceptable.” They must, therefore, “end their lingering relations with Qaddafi.”
For his part, Qaddafi has increasingly sought to demonstrate that the intervention is going nowhere, even brazenly appearing to engage in a chess match with the Russian head of FIDE, the world chess association. And his troops continue to take the offensive, despite the introduction by Britain and France of helicopter gunships into the battle.
For America and the West, other dangers are surfacing as the Libyan intervention flounders. The growing violence in Syria, for example, poses truly awkward questions: Can the West, after intervening to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi, continue to do nothing as massacres take place throughout the country? To let the Syrian cauldron boil is wrenching, but to intervene appears utterly impractical. Liberal interventionism, once again, seems undermined by its (perhaps inevitably) uneven application.
The 20-year-old notion, born of Cold War triumph, that Western military force could impose order wherever and whenever it wished, has become untenable. Once again, the consequences of such interventions have shown themselves to be more serious and complex than anyone could have imagined, much less would have intended.
Indeed, reflect for a moment on this conundrum: to ignore the bloodshed in Syria is to give tacit recognition to Iran’s regional influence. That lack of resolve invariably diminishes Saudi Arabia’s prestige and raises even more questions within the Kingdom about the reliability of US protection – hence further eroding America’s regional position. The emergence of a neo-Ottoman Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, asserting itself in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, attests to America’s diminished regional prestige.
It should surprise no one that liberal intervention and the age of America as the lone superpower are drawing to a close simultaneously. At the end of history, it seems, was a lot more history.
But without these liberal interventions as an animating force, what is NATO’s relevance nowadays? Pug Ismay’s pithy bon mot that NATO’s purpose was “to keep Russia out, America in, and Germany down” no longer suffices. So what will? America’s ability to reaffirm its centrality in global affairs depends on the answer.
Jaswant Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister, and defense minister, is the author of Jinnah: India – Partition – Independence.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.