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European Superhero Quashes Libyan Dictator

Lévy prefers spending time in New York to Paris. Partly this has to do with his wealth: The French are obsessed, whereas, he says, “there is less prejudice in America.” His fame is less pronounced here, which permits him more privacy. But there is, of course, a deeper connection, too. “There is no heroism in Europe anymore,” Lévy’s friend Enthoven tells me, while America has always been much more receptive to self-appointed superstars. Lévy speaks about Libya in terms far grander than humanitarian intervention. He was convinced, he says, that a NATO campaign could help bring Muslims and Jews together—a project he calls a “battle of my life,” and one in which he spotted a role for himself. On the front lines, he told the rebels and jihadists of his religion, believing history might move because a Jewish writer “has given a hand and helped a Muslim country.” Since the sixties, he says, “I have dreamed of this reconciliation of the sons of Abraham. I will have achieved my duty of being a man, if I contribute.”

At one point, I ask Lévy whether he is motivated by a nostalgia for the role of the intellectual. He cops to nostalgia, “but my real nostalgia is not for that,” he says. “It is a nostalgia of the French Resistance, of the International Brigades in Spain, of the time when people of my sort were brave and daring.” Lévy talks about the valor of his father, who served in the French Army at the Battle of Monte Cassino in World War II, racing between the lines to collect the wounded. Lévy has a complicated relationship with the idea of the public intellectual. But in Libya, he says, he believes he has demonstrated the importance of the intellectual “maybe now more than ever.” Why? I ask. “Because here they did not just write letters, sign petitions. They did.”

This is what Lévy’s demonstration looks like, his Monte Cassino. By the end of March, the rebels had been hemmed in at Misrata, under bombardment. Then, slowly, NATO helped them turn the battle. French jets destroyed Qaddafi’s plane on the runway; British warships took out militia boats. Block by block, the rebels fought off tanks. Two weeks into May, they had the loyalists holed up in the terminal buildings of the city’s airport, and a few days after that had claimed the city itself.

By mid-August, the rebels were so sure of their final victory in Tripoli that they could afford to time it to the 1,381st anniversary of Muhammed’s conquest of Mecca. They had smuggled arms into the city by tugboat; a few weeks later, Qaddafi’s third son called CNN to say he wanted to negotiate a cease-fire, and the rebels were chasing his father across the desert. Another three weeks, and Lévy was leading Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron on a tour of conquered Tripoli, against a background of graffiti praising them both. Europe was plunging toward economic catastrophe. But for a moment its leaders could imagine themselves heroes.

During the darkest days of the spring, in his visits and phone calls to the National Transitional Council, Lévy kept sharing stories of bravery from Bosnia and the Spanish Civil War. “I could not help telling them about it constantly,” he says. “Were they aware of the parallelism? I don’t know.” But he was offering the rebels the same invitation he’d issued to Sarkozy: to see themselves in the same grandiose terms as Lévy does himself. You need to flatten out history to do this, but if you can, it has a rare power. Just two years ago, the United States was so resigned to Qaddafi that John McCain, after visiting with the dictator at his desert ranch, tweeted, “Interesting meeting with an interesting man.” In April 2009, Hillary Clinton hosted one of the dictator’s sons for a diplomatic meeting.

When I visited Lévy in Paris, he was obsessing over Qaddafi’s corpse and the brutality with which the rebels had treated the captured dictator. “That bare head,” Lévy wrote of Qaddafi, in his column in Le Point. “Suddenly and oddly bare! We were used to seeing him in turbans, and there was something poignant in the denuding that renders this criminal strangely pitiable.” There was also something poignant in Lévy’s own surprise: that he had expected the violence of liberation to stop neatly and abruptly.

But a few days later, Lévy began a monthlong victory lap, one that moved across two continents. There have been a few dissents about the wisdom of the Libyan enterprise, but they haven’t shaken perceptions of the war’s virtue, either in Europe or America, and Lévy has adopted the pose of a redeemed man. Even Lévy’s case for Strauss-Kahn has begun to look a little wiser, more clear-eyed. The rape charges were dropped, after prosecutors began to doubt that they could trust Diallo, and liberal opinion has moved far enough that the New York Review of Books could publish, earlier this month, a long essay implying that Strauss-Kahn had been set up. The day after Lévy appeared on Charlie Rose, he e-mailed me from London; he was preparing, he wrote, to address both houses of Parliament: “Commons + Peers.”

What to make of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s remarkable year? Perhaps that sometimes heroism depends on egotism; that sometimes they are the same thing. Modern liberalism has long since dismissed Levy’s notion of radical individualism: We know that the individual does not operate free of social context; that when an IMF chief and a hotel maid have sex in a Sofitel they are not simply two people; that when Western militaries intervene in an African civil war they conjure a dark imperial memory. But this perspective has an occasional blind spot of its own: the feeling that the present may be close to inevitable, or at least beyond the capacity of any one person to alter. Very occasionally, the opposite perspective—Levy’s perspective—can win something real.

In early June, exultant, Lévy arrived in Sarkozy’s offices with photos of newly liberated Misrata. The two men examined the evidence of their handiwork, and Lévy began to narrate it. “This way of repelling the tanks out of the city with bare hands—I never saw that anywhere,” Lévy says, recalling the episode. Narcissism is a weird form of humanism: It expands the possibilities of what a person might do. “I told him that an army of citizens able to do that—to liberate their city from occupying forces—were capable of doing anything.”