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Philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy speaks of his role in France's push against Kadafi

The public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy is credited with a key role in persuading French President Nicolas Sarkozy to spearhead a drive for military intervention in Libya. He invoked the flag.

April 17, 2011|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times
  • French public intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy speaks to journalists in Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city that is the stronghold of the anti-Kadafi opposition.
French public intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy speaks to journalists… (Ben Curtis, AP )

Reporting from Paris — 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.

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