The Return of Les Soixante-Huitards?

The prologue to Bernard Henri Levi’s book “Left in Dark Times” recounts the author’s frequent conversations with French candidate for President Nikolas Sarkozy as he tries to solicit support from the philosopher and figure of the (interventionist) left (he supported Segolene Royal, if I remember correctly). That had me thinking this morning about how connected BHL might have been to Sarkozy’s leading role in the recent and continuing actions in Libya. Coupled with the return to prominence of Samantha Power within the Obama administration, a fortunate return in my view, had me pondering the shift in Western attitudes toward human rights intervention in the post-Bush era. And what do I see this afternoon? The following interview with B.H.L. from the LA Times:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy shocked the world by leading the push for a United Nations resolution to use force against Moammar Kadafi in his battle with rebels, and then unleashing French jets to launch the first airstrikes against the Libyan leader’s forces.

Perhaps more shocking, a celebrity French philosopher has been given much of the credit for sparking the chain of events.

A dandied-up French slant on Hemingway, in his bold activism, literary prolificacy and habit of baring a tan chest in unbuttoned white shirts, Bernard-Henri Levy never goes unnoticed.

Levy (universally known here as B.H.L.) is famous for his go-it-alone activism, about which he writes furiously. But the astonishing story of him marching across bombed Libyan cities (in a suit) to meet rebel leaders and, in short, making history on behalf of the French government (without the knowledge of its Foreign Ministry) has many especially fascinated and infuriated here.

At a posh hotel in Paris, he sat down to discuss his role. But first he had to take a call on his cellphone. « It’s Sarkozy, » he said, before excusing himself.

After hanging up from his conversation with the president of France, an exhausted-looking Levy sat down to answer questions.

What is your working relationship with Sarkozy right now? A kind of advisor?
Of course not! I’m a political opponent. I didn’t vote for him. I won’t vote for him. But I think this intervention in Libya is a very important date for France, and the free world in general. So in that sense, I support the French position 100%.

With its military leadership, has France’s role changed on the global playing field?
I don’t know, but it’s important to measure the historic importance of this affair. It is the first time we will have stopped a bloodbath this quickly…. It’s the first real realization of this famous duty to protect, or duty to interfere…. And it’s important, above and beyond the Libyan people.

About the U.S. role, did France act more responsibly, and is there a lesson here?
I don’t know if [France] can give lessons, but it’s clear that France played the driving role. I think that without France, the United States would certainly not have gone as far. They already have the weight of the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.

I think that without France, the United States would not have entered this story. I think France helped them; it’s not a lesson. France helped them to be true to themselves, because we can’t give Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, and not show up at the Libyan crossroad.

Libya is one of the moments — and maybe the most important one — where we really see fracture lines in the Muslim world, between totalitarianism and an aspiration for democracy. It has never been as clear as it is today. And that was the theme of Obama’s Cairo speech.

Does NATO need more American support in Libya?
One can’t do without American forces. And that said, I think that American strikes will begin again. I will make you a bet: I think the American forces will start strikes again, out of necessity, against Kadafi.

What makes you sure?
I just came back from Libya, and that is my feeling…. The coalition will win. The war is not getting bogged down. That’s not true. And I have a hard time imagining the U.S. kept at bay from this victory, because it will be a victory.

Can you be more precise about how you concluded that?
What I saw was that free Libya will win, and pretty quickly.

Some examples?
For example, I was in Ajdabiya the day before yesterday and I was in [Port] Brega a month ago [both contested cities]. I saw the shababs [the young civilian men in the rebel army] over a month interval. This army has already metamorphosed. It’s no longer the crazy, and courageous, improvisation. The volunteer army has a tactical, new sense, a strategic command.

If their army is so highly advanced, why is it necessary for the U.S. to escalate airstrikes?
Because there is a military imbalance, nevertheless, between the types of weapons they have. The army of free Libya doesn’t have tanks, they don’t have planes … and their rocket ranges are much weaker than the Kadafists’. So they will only win with the allies…. They can only win if every time a column of tanks is discovered, it is bombed.

What I mean is that if we do that… in the weeks that follow free Libya will be able to take back the martyr cities, even reach as far as Tripoli. They are capable of doing it.

Concerning the political implications for Sarkozy, what does he have to gain from his role in Libya?
No French president has ever made the decision he has made here. We took three years before intervening in Bosnia. In Rwanda, we intervened only to filter out the assassins that were around. Here, a few weeks later, we engaged in an operation to stop a bloodbath. It’s the first time. Nobody has done it before, not [French Presidents] Mitterrand, nor Chirac, nor Giscard.

It’s very important. Not politically [important]; [Sarkozy] will surely be beaten in a year, and I hope for it, by the way, but I tell you, for him it’s a major historical event.

You are not concerned that NATO won’t do what you feel necessary?
I think NATO will intensify its strikes and not reduce them. And I think that the process of guiding NATO strikes will improve in the coming days.

Today there are adjustments being made and better coordination. Not just from the point of view of NATO, but also of the Libyans…. It’s a problem of too many sources of information, and too many delays in replies. I think those two problems are being solved today.

Can you talk about the members of the Transitional National Council? Who they are?
Most of them are lawyers, or men who have worked in the legal realm: former judges, lawyers or people with legal training. They are people who are more oriented toward the West. Some have lived in the U.S., went to British universities. Most speak English. And they are friends of the Free World.

Some were high-ranking members of Kadafi’s regime, that is true, of course. But a larger number were opponents who paid a heavy price for their opposition…. But not a single one has any sympathy for what we call radical Islam. I won’t even speak of Al Qaeda, that would be ridiculous. Of the 13 or 14 members of the executive Transitional National Council … none have sympathy for radical Islam. Any other allegation is a lie.

What ability do intellectuals have today to influence nations? It’s of course rare.
Well, you have proof of the contrary.

What are the chances of them being listened to by state leaders?
Weak, of course, but sometimes there is a miracle.

Was what you were able to do for Libya a miracle?
Yes, it was a miracle, it is in the realm of the miracle. Well, more like I’d say it’s a combination of happy circumstances, combined with a certain perseverance.

When asked, you have said that Sarkozy persuaded himself to take military action in Libya, but you spoke to him of the risk of blood on the French flag if he didn’t fight Kadafi; was there an intense conversation, discussion about what to do?
Yes, yes. There was a real conversation when I came back from Libya … at least on my part it was intense.

What did you say to him?
I spoke about the French flag, as you know, and the need not to wait three years like in Bosnia, not to miss the historical crossroad, like in Rwanda. That democracy betrays itself if it acts too late.

The poetry and metaphor you used — talking about the flag — it sounds almost like propaganda.
Yes.

And it works.
I don’t know if it works, but that’s how it is. That sentence, I wasn’t the one who leaked it. I said it, but it was said without calculation. I said it because this image really hit me when I saw the French flag hanging in Benghazi, when I heard these people living in fear of a bloodbath…. And it just happens that it was probably a word [the flag] that cannot not touch the president of the French Republic.

Does being a writer and philosopher, etc., give you an added edge during efforts at diplomacy?
I don’t use diplomacy. For example, the day before yesterday, I spoke in a square in Benghazi [the rebel stronghold], in front of tens of thousands of people. And I spoke of the way the world saw them, and I also spoke about what the world expected of them. I talked about how I see democracy, how the effort of nations in their favor required a certain response once they win. And I am very proud of having done that.

For example, I told them I was Jewish. Very clearly.

Are you concerned that the French will not support a war that drags on?
Yes, it’s a risk. But I think it will be resolved quickly. I think Kadafi will leave. That said, as much as I am against Kadafi staying, I am just as in favor of negotiations to have him leave. I’m not in favor of killing anyone.

Devorah Lauter is a special correspondent.