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European Superhero Quashes Libyan Dictator

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Lévy awaiting the arrival of French president Nicolas Sarkozy at the Tripoli Medical Center, September 15.  

Things came together rapidly, for a war. Four days later, Lévy was flying a rebel general onto the freezing tarmac at Le Bourget, the Teterboro of Paris, for a meeting he had brokered with Hillary Clinton, and soon the Americans were committed; a few days later, Sarkozy called Lévy to tell him that the U.N. Security Council was in agreement. “I am proud of my country,” Lévy told his president. On March 19, the intervention began. Sarkozy had just done what Lévy had spent three decades urging politicians to do—had used the West’s military power to help avert an impending massacre. Lévy was quick to point out, to anyone who asked, that this would not alter his opposition to Sarkozy’s bid for reelection.

This is the story that Lévy has since unfurled, bannerlike, against a backdrop of official no-comments. Through reports in Le Monde, the countervailing perspective of the French bureaucracy has since emerged: They were planning a Libyan intervention all along, and Lévy’s actions were a sideshow. But the circumstantial evidence inclines Lévy’s way. For the war’s six-month duration, Lévy was Sarkozy’s exhorter and confessor in Paris, at crucial moments taking three calls a day from the French president, and his tour guide in Tripoli. “They say they had plans,” Lévy told me. “Okay, why not? It is a defense ministry. They have plans for literally everything: invading Vanuatu, repelling Mauritius, and so on.” He shrugged. “So?”

Wars are no longer supposed to begin like this. They are exercises in national interest and self-defense, not personal morality and valor. They are the product of military plans, not proddings from celebrity philosophers. And yet Libya—so far the most aggressive humanitarian intervention of the 21st century—depended not on any broad public movement nor any urgent security threat. There was instead a chain of private conversations: Hillary Clinton moving Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy moving Dmitri Medvedev, and at the chain’s inception this romantic propagandist, Bernard-Henri Lévy. “I think this war was probably launched by two statesmen,” Lévy told me. “Hillary Clinton and Sarkozy. More modestly, me.”*

“The Philosopher, the writer … Bernard-Henri Lévy!” It is late Thursday evening in the second week of November, in a television studio wedged into a theater upstairs at the Moulin Rouge. Lévy, the program’s special guest, is wearing the same costume he’s worn for the 35 years he’s been a public figure: a hand-tailored black Charvet suit, an open-neck white shirt unbuttoned to the region of the pancreas, and a wave of gray-black hair so structured it looks like you could surf it. Up close, you can see the effort the 63-year-old’s look requires—the dense mat of product in his hair, the architectured stitching that keeps the collar from slumping: In an old-regime way, the effort is the point.

This is the taping of a Saturday-night talk show called On N’est Pas Couché—which translates roughly to “We’re Still Up”—and it resembles Bill Maher’s show, if Maher had the antic energy of an activated Pez dispenser. When Lévy was young, philosophers were often on French television, but the country’s culture has evolved; one of Lévy’s co-panelists, the film director Mathieu Kassovitz, is wearing a T-shirt, and at one point a few young men in the audience are expelled for drunken heckling. The set is a purple-and-silver Art Deco explosion. When Lévy enters, perfectly composed, the audience gives only perfunctory, producer-compelled applause. They are here for the Angela Merkel jokes; they will suffer the philosophy.

Lévy is interviewed by two young, female journalists, and the first question he gets, from Natacha Polony, is pointed: “What gives you the legitimacy to act as you do?” Wasn’t it strange that a private citizen could play the role he had in Libya? Wasn’t it naïve to ignore the rising threat of Sharia in Libya? The other journalist, Audrey Pulvar, asks Lévy what gave him the right to intervene in the affairs of state. “Because you are right, you are good, you are just?”

“No, no, no, no,” Lévy says. “My country, our country, for the first time since the American Revolution, has come to a foreign country to help a revolution, to help a war of liberation, and this is good, this is beautiful, this is noble …” He launches into what might be called the full Lévy, a detour from an isolated matter of current events into a whirlpool of historical allusions and philosophical first principles. Soon there are references to Malraux, Hemingway, and Orwell, and at five separate points he invokes human rights, les droits de l’homme. Pascal Bruckner, another French philosopher and often an ally of Lévy’s, notes that this is Lévy’s natural mode. “Elections, discussions with the unions, economic problems—all these problems do not interest him,” he says. What Lévy has instead is “a will to turn politics into an epic, and to abandon everything that is prosaic.” It is an entrancing thing to watch; for an extended moment at the studio, the camera fixes on a close-up of Lévy’s expressive hands.


*This article has been corrected to show that Lévy said the Libyan war was launched by two, not three, statesmen.


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