In a recent diary and film, French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy has recalled the role he played in last year's NATO-led intervention in Libya, writes David Tresilian
The French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, well-known in France for his popular books on philosophy and his journalism, came to international attention early last year when he went to the Libyan city of Benghazi to meet the leaders of the uprising against former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, subsequently promoting their cause with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and helping to bring about their international recognition.
For some days in March last year it might have even seemed that Lévy had taken over the running of French diplomacy, sidelining the country's then foreign minister Alain Juppé and persuading Sarkozy to place himself at the head of western efforts to intervene in Libya on the side of anti-Gaddafi forces.
According to the diary that Lévy has now published recalling these events, entitled La Guerre sans l'aimer (War without Liking It), he says that he originally went to Libya on a whim, having watched the Benghazi uprising on television, and it was only later that he decided to press Sarkozy into recognising the rebels as the legitimate Libyan government and into intervening militarily in their support against the Gaddafi regime.
He telephoned Sarkozy from Benghazi on 5 March last year, proposing to bring the Libyan rebels to Paris as a step towards their recognition as an alternative to the Gaddafi regime. This is shown in real time in Lévy's filmed version of events, entitled Le Serment de Tobrouk (The Tobrouk Oath), which was released in France earlier this year.
"Would you agree to meet this delegation personally," he asked Sarkozy, knowing that if so this would be "a major act with international ramifications." "Of course," Sarkozy apparently said in reply. "I will meet your friends with pleasure. Let's talk about it when you get to Paris."
Following a second telephone call, France recognised the Libyan National Transitional Council, composed of leaders of the uprising in Benghazi. Some days later, members of the Council were "stupefied" to be told, during a meeting in Paris organised by Lévy, that France also intended to recognise them "as the sole legitimate representatives of Libya" and that it would take the lead in organising an international coalition against the Gaddafi regime.
At this point in Levy's record of events, non-French readers may well have decided that he must be exaggerating the role he played in persuading Sarkozy to initiate the intervention that eventually brought in NATO and led to the collapse of the regime in Tripoli. Even in France foreign policy cannot be decided quite like that.
However, if Lévy did not in fact play the role he thinks he did, perhaps acting more as a front man for policies already decided elsewhere, this possibility does not seem to have struck him. In any event, readers of Lévy's diary or viewers of his film may want to put their scepticism on hold and attend instead to the reasons he gives for his decision to promote the western intervention in Libya, particularly since Lévy has recently been arguing in the French press for similar intervention in Syria.
In order for an uprising to be considered justified, a rebel group must be credible in its organisation and demands, and in order for a government to lose its legitimacy it must act in such a way as to forfeit its claim to be acting in the interests of its citizens. Yet, in practice such tests can be hard to meet, since rebel groups may not represent a majority, or even a large minority, of a country's population, and they may act to promote their own interests rather than those of the country as a whole.
It can also be hard to decide at what point a government has lost its legitimacy and has started acting in ways contrary to the interests of its citizens, since all governments have a duty to ensure security, meaning that they may decide to act militarily against groups that threaten it. There is also the question of double standards, since historically interventions, whatever the reasons given for them, have tended to take place unequally, some countries being considered ripe for foreign intervention and others being left well alone, whatever the nature of the events taking place within them.
In the Libyan case, Lévy seems to be in no doubt about the justification for the Benghazi uprising or the illegitimacy of the Gaddafi regime, though his use of a diary form can make it difficult to track down a definitive statement of the reasons behind his views. The waters are muddied further by Lévy's habit, linked to his use of a diary form, of writing down whatever enters his head, such that there is much material about his family, his personal and professional feuds, and his own career.
In the entry for 2 March, Lévy asks himself whether "I haven't put my finger on what is, in the end, the crime of Gaddafi �ê" the imprisonment, the confinement, the placing in quarantine, and, at root, the attempt to bring about the spiritual deaths of the descendants of the kingdom of Cyrenaica?"
But it can't have been for this crime that the rebellion was initiated or the NATO-led intervention in its support carried out, since a desire to "bring Libya back to life" is not a credible political demand. There is much material about allegedly parallel cases, mostly to do with Lévy's earlier support of western intervention in the former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan, as well as about Sarkozy's own sabre-rattling. But on the question of how to deal with those states, Germany among them, that did not share Lévy's views about the necessity of foreign military intervention he has little to say apart from fulminate against them for not agreeing with his views.
Among the requirements before any intervention is carried out are that it should not make the situation worse and that the rebellion it is designed to support should have a reasonable chance of succeeding in bringing down the existing government and establishing an improved replacement regime. In the run-up to the NATO-led intervention in Libya, there must have been doubts about these requirements since the rebel groups in Benghazi did not seem to speak for the entire Libyan population and little was known about their aims and objectives for a replacement government.
Lévy brushes aside these doubts in the entry for 20 March entitled "where it is explained that Libya will not be like Iraq," in which he finally explains his views on what makes a war, or foreign military intervention, right. He runs through the standard arguments, including the intrinsic justice of the cause, the idea of intervention as an act of last resort, and the principle of proportionality, and claims that these fit the NATO-led intervention in Libya and the bringing down of the Gaddafi government.
According to Lévy, there were "five objective, clear, undeniable reasons for why this is a different set of circumstances and why this war is the 'anti-war' of Iraq: (1) a mandate from the UN, the source of undeniable international legitimacy; (2) a strong moral mandate, given by the Arab League, which, it must not be forgotten, was immediately ready to condemn, with the West, the aggression carried out by Gaddafi against his own people; (3) the presence of a national transitional council that has the merit of actually existing, of having genuine popular support and of being much more attractive than the wretched Iraqi National Congress that [Iraqi opposition figure Ahmed] Chalabi used to preside over."
"(4) A democratic uprising, a popular and democratic uprising that came before the foreign intervention and which the latter is taking place not to bring about, but to support �ê" and that changes everything; and (5) no ground troops and no army of occupation. Should it be possible to go ahead without a ground army and protect the civilians in Benghazi or even bring down Gaddafi without having to send in an expeditionary force, this would mark this war out from those prosecuted by the West up to now."
Yet, not everyone shared Lévy's certainty on points (1), (3) and (4). The UN mandate, contained in UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of March last year, authorised member states "to take all necessary measures�ê� to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." It also established a no-fly zone over Libyan territory and tightened up the arms embargo. This text was interpreted to justify the commencement of a NATO-led bombing campaign of Libya and the bringing down of the Gaddafi regime �ê" actions that some considered went beyond what the original mandate had authorised.
Moreover, just as Ahmed Shalabi, an exiled Iraqi politician and opponent of the Saddam Hussein regime, turned out not to have had the kind of popular support in Iraq that he had apparently claimed he had once the US had invaded and occupied that country in 2003, there were also doubts at the time of the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya regarding the extent of support for the Benghazi-based Libyan National Transitional Council, given its regional character, though these were apparently not shared by Lévy.
Finally, it is possible to agree or disagree with the reasons Lévy gives for supporting the NATO-led intervention in Libya, but the particular tone of his book owes less to its arguments, which are those that circulated at the time, than to its author's staging of himself as playing a special role in the victory of the Libyan rebels and the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. Readers might even gain the impression that this is not really a book about Libya at all, given Lévy's obsession with the history of French foreign policy and his desire to make up for earlier failures to persuade former French presidents Francois Mitterand and Jacques Chirac to intervene militarily in the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, respectively, before the United States did so.
"I have been pleading for the right to intervene for more than 30 years," Lévy writes, giving the examples of campaigns he has engaged in in Bangladesh, Darfour in Sudan, Angola, Burundi, Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, and in support of the former Afghan Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Masoud.
The abiding tone of the book can perhaps be illustrated by the following passage, where Lévy not only deploys his address book and his apparently indefatigible self-regard, but also manages to insert himself into the history of French literature and diplomacy.
"Dinner with [US chat show host] Charlie Rose and [media tycoon] Arianna Huffington. Let's admit, I told them, that I played the role�ê� of helping to bring about this war. But there is a single precedent of a French writer launching a war, though this is a hugely important predecent, obviously�ê� It is that of [Francois-Rene de] Chateaubriand becoming foreign minister in order to launch the Spanish war in 1823 and put Ferdinand VII back on the throne."
Bernard-Henri Lévy, La Guerre sans l'aimer, journal d'un écrivain au coeur du printemps libyen, Paris: Grasset, 201, pp.640.