Today's date:
Spring 2011

Behind the Scenes of France’s Lead on Libya

Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French author and philosopher (his latest book is Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism), has played a high-profile role in convincing French President Nicolas Sarkozy to take the lead on recognizing the rebels in Libya and establishing the no-fly zone. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in March.

NPQ | It’s been said that you have played the key role in convincing Sarkozy to enter into this war.          

Bernard-Henri Lévy | The key role, I don’t know. President Sarkozy is certainly old enough to know what he has to do. Especially since, as you may know, I am a fierce opponent of his policies. I didn’t vote for him in 2007. I will not vote for him in 2012. And he knows it.                    

NPQ | Then why is it that you were present on March 10th, at the Elysée, when he received the representatives of the National Council of Transition and recognized them as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people?

Lévy | Well, that’s something else. I was there because I was the one who arranged the meeting. I am the one who convinced Sarkozy to receive these three men and who had suggested this “diplomatic recognition” to him. I was in Benghazi covering a story in the liberated section of Libya. As luck would have it, I met these people from the National Council of Transition and, in particular, its president, Mustafa Abdel Jalil. And it’s true that I called the president of my country from Benghazi to tell him, “There are people here, good people; these people hold the same values as we do, and they’re going to die to the last one if we allow Gadhafi to go on to the conclusion of his criminal logic. Would you accept to receive them in Paris and thus send a strong signal to the butcher?” Nicolas Sarkozy immediately said yes. And he confirmed his agreement the following Monday, on the morning I returned, when I went to see him at the Elysée.

NPQ | Fine. But why did you operate in secret? And place your partners, in particular the Europeans, before the fait accompli?

Lévy | Because talking about this idea, verbalizing it, revealing it, would have meant its failure. When you consider everything that happened afterwards—squawks of protest from one and the other, dilatory maneuvers of all kinds—you can imagine what would have taken place beforehand: The operation would simply have been drowned in the flood of quibbling and neo-Munichesque blah-blah-blah. It would have been sabotaged before it had even begun. It had to be secret. For this powerful political act, this decisive act of sovereignty, this act that would break with all custom, all diplomatic rules, all conformisms, the effect of surprise was absolutely necessary. Nicolas Sarkozy understood that. And I am grateful to him for that.

NPQ | From your point of view, what is the purpose of the operation?

Lévy | The purpose is written in the resolution. To protect civilians. To prevent the bloodbath Gadhafi is anticipating. And, beyond that, to break the military machine that Gadhafi, as you know, had turned against his own people. Protecting civilians, then, is putting the army and the power of Gadhafi out of commission. 

NPQ | Have we accomplished this?

Lévy | The coalition has smashed the military airports, destroyed the heavy artillery, cut off the supply lines. But, for the time being, it has been unable to prevent him from sending his last tanks into the heart of Misurata, transforming the city’s inhabitants into just so many human shields. Gadhafi has hunkered down in the cities. Imagine a Hitler whose bunker would have been all of Berlin. That is Gadhafi today.   

NPQ | Do you have any news from Misurata?

Lévy | Yes. This afternoon (March 24). From one of the city’s teachers, whom I reached by phone. Gadhafi’s mercenaries are firing on the hospital. Killing the wounded. The city dwellers no longer leave their homes for fear of being gunned down like rabbits by snipers. Blood is flowing in Misurata.

NPQ | What does one do when the rebels go on the offensive under cover of the no-fly zone and then are caught on some front line, locked in battle? Does the coalition have to support them?

Lévy | It all depends on what you mean by “support.” If it’s sending troops on the ground to accomplish the Libyan revolution in the place of the Libyan people, no, that is not in the mandate voted by the United Nations, that is not what the National Council of Transition is requesting, and it is not what the president of the French Republic said to its emissaries at the Elysée. His words were quite clear and he hammered on them several times: “No one is going to come and accomplish your revolution in your place; the Libyan revolution belongs to the Libyan people and to them alone. We, the French, I can tell you we would have hated for this people or that to come and steal our 1789.” On the other hand, we must arm the insurgents. Arm them and train them. I believe that is what the Egyptians are doing. And perhaps the French.

NPQ | If France goes too far, won’t you lose the legitimacy the support of the UN confers?

Lévy | This is what I am telling you: One of the major differences between this war, inevitable, and the war in Iraq, detestable, is the mandate of the United Nations, its absolutely legal framework. It would be regrettable to stray outside of this legal framework. And I believe France will not do so.

NPQ | What about the faltering Arab League?

Lévy | I wouldn’t say it has “faltered.” All right, it’s wavering a bit. You have a guy at the head of it, Amr Moussa, who has some political ulterior motives and who’s playing both sides, it’s true. But on the whole, the League is hanging on. Don’t forget, it was the League that launched the first appeal to save the Libyan people from the predicted slaughter. And, at the time I’m speaking, fundamentally, it has not changed its position and thus still supports the allied operation.    

NPQ | Arabs seem at odds with the French effort to overthrow Gadhafi? Why?

Lévy | What Arabs? Not Arab public opinion, at any rate. The Egyptians, for example, the intense strength of the new Egypt, support their Libyan brothers, are stirred by them and suffer with them and, contrary to what Monsieur Moussa may believe, have no problem with the presence of American, English and French planes in the skies over Libya. 

NPQ | The successful Arab revolts—in Egypt and Tunisia—have indelible legitimacy because they were totally indigenous. Will French intervention coupled with the Americans and British undercut the legitimacy of the Libyan revolt, playing into Gadhafi’s hands on his claim that this is Western imperialism after Libyan oil?

Lévy | The oil argument is an idiotic argument. Had the problem been oil, the easiest solution would have been to maintain Gadhafi’s presence. One can “deal” very well with dictators. 

NPQ | If the French aim is successful and Gadhafi falls, who are the rebels the West is allying with? Secularists? Islamists? And what do they want?

Lévy | Secularists. They want a unified Libya whose capital will remain Tripoli and whose government will be elected as a result of free and transparent elections. I am not saying that this will happen from one day to the next, and starting on the first day. But I have seen these men enough, I have spoken with them enough, to know that this is undeniably the dream, the goal, the principle of legitimacy. I would add that this National Council of Transition does not represent, as I have read all too often, only Cyrnaica (the eastern coastal region of Libya). All of the regions are represented there. All the tribes. Including Gadhafi’s tribe or the tribes that are allied with it.                     

NPQ | President Obama has argued for action in Libya because Gadhafi is killing his own people. But so are they too in Bahrain and Yemen, Western allies in “the war on terror.” Isn’t there a case for intervention in those places as well?

Lévy | Yes, certainly. But for now, let’s take down Gadhafi. You shall see that this will serve as a warning for all the other dictators. We cannot intervene everywhere. But an intervention can set a tone, serve as an example and a dissuasive factor. If Gadhafi wins, it will be the death knell of the Arab spring. If he is beaten, a fair wind of democracy will blow once again—and even harder.

NPQ | What are the parallels, or lack of them, to Bosnia, Kosovo and, in the French case in particular, Rwanda?

Lévy | The parallels are obvious. Beginning with the hatred of the cities, the urbicide temptation, that Gadhafi shares with the Serb Radovan Karadzic or the Hutu perpetrators of genocide. The difference is that in Bosnia, or Rwanda, it was allowed to happen. Whereas in this case, intervention was decided upon very rapidly. And that is to the honor, this time, of the international community.