European Superhero Quashes Libyan Dictator

Celebrity doesn’t always travel well. The conditions it depends upon can be too local, too conditional. Try explaining Kim Kardashian to the Germans; try asking the Germans to explain David Hasselhoff to us. Still, the case of the famously self-regarding, righteous, impeccably coiffed French philosopher and media personality Bernard-Henri Lévy is singularly strange. The events of the past year—in which Lévy, operating freelance, seemed to prompt a broke and crumbling Europe into a humanitarian war in Libya—so obviously belong to a different era that Lévy has left in his wake a torrent of historical analogies: Perhaps he is Lawrence of Arabia, as a friendly French review recently suggested. Or perhaps he is Don Quixote.

One year ago, influence like this appeared far beyond Lévy’s reach. He has long been France’s most famous living philosopher, and was once an important one, but his media and social profile eclipsed his intellectual reputation. He was still suffering from the highly embarrassing Botul episode of 2010, in which Lévy had happened upon a philosophical spoof and, assuming it to be serious, cited its arguments as part of a critique of Immanuel Kant. (He had missed the crucial clue, which was that the fake philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, was elaborating a philosophy called Botulism.) His journalism was often called glib, and his big 2006 book on America had been panned on the front page of the New York Times’ Sunday book review. When I called scholars of European ideas at Harvard and Columbia to talk about Lévy, they dismissed him as overhyped and irrelevant, respectively. At the beginning of 2011, Lévy was most frequently in the French press for his New York mistress, the heiress Daphne Guinness, who kept up a public theater of pining for him on Twitter.

But, as Lévy told me recently, “sometimes you are inhabited by intuitions that are not clear to you.” On February 23, the philosopher was in Cairo watching television images of Muammar Qaddafi’s retribution against the rebel towns around Benghazi, which the dictator and his sons had threatened to drown in “rivers of blood.” Lévy is most fully himself in stark humanitarian crises, when defending what he calls “the memory of the worst.” He is also the heir to a vast timber fortune, wealth that allows him a license to act on his instincts, and so he promptly found the name of rebel leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, arranged for a cameraman and for a private plane to fly him near the front, and within a few hours was in a hired car, driving off to war.

Lévy was a veteran of mass killing; he had seen it in a half-dozen conflicts, maybe, and driving through the desert towns east of Benghazi, he detected its early signs: blood-smeared walls, passersby wrapping themselves in hoods to keep their lungs free of contaminants. He foresaw a “crawling tragedy. Thirty, 40 dead a day. Maybe worse.” In Benghazi, Lévy spent the hour before their meeting frantically Googling Abdel-Jalil and leaping up to greet anyone walking past who might be the Libyan. When Abdel-Jalil did arrive (“short with a modest smile and the look of a stunned falcon”), Lévy had prepared his speech. “The world is watching,” he began. It was pompous, he realized, but “you have to say something.” He compared Benghazi to the Warsaw Ghetto, to Sarajevo. “Benghazi is the capital not only of Libya but of free men and women all over the world,” Lévy told the rebel leader.

“In the back of his mind, I’m sure, was the idea that I might be a fly-by-night,” Lévy wrote in his diary, “or delusional.” Indeed. Lévy told Abdel-Jalil that he could fly a rebel delegation to Paris on his plane and get them an audience with French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The rebels were badly outgunned, and Abdel-Jalil did not at this moment have a ton of other suitors. He agreed.

The philosopher had barely spoken with Sarkozy in three years and had rather loudly opposed the president’s election. Lévy got so stressed thinking about the call that he developed a migraine, but he phoned the presidential palace anyway and was promptly put through. The call dropped three times; it wasn’t a great connection. But the president agreed to meet with the Libyans, and the next Thursday they were all in his office in Paris, ringed by Sarkozy’s advisers.

Everyone was awkward. The Libyans asked Sarkozy to assassinate Qaddafi. This was impossible. Lévy sensed that the rebels misunderstood their own case: “So maladroit, so not skilled, did not know the cause.” Lévy had sat down privately with Sarkozy the previous day and, grappling for a line of argument, wound up with rhetoric; if there was a massacre in Benghazi, he said, “the blood of the massacred will stain the French flag.” Sarkozy seemed to buy it. At the meeting with the rebels, the French president pledged a bombardment if he could secure the cooperation of the allies. In Lévy’s account, as the meeting emptied, Sarkozy said to him, “Feel free to, uh, say what you saw and heard.” Outside, Lévy told reporters that France would recognize the rebels as the Libyan government; he mentioned that “targeted operations” would come soon. Le Monde, bewildered, noted that the philosopher seemed to have taken the job of governmental spokesman. The man officially in charge of French foreign affairs—Alain Juppé, the foreign minister—was in Brussels at the time; he would later reportedly threaten to resign over the end run.

Lévy awaiting the arrival of French president Nicolas Sarkozy at the Tripoli Medical Center, September 15.Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Lévy outside the Palais de l'Élysée in 1978.Photo: Richard Melloul/Sygma/Corbis

But Lévy and the journalists seem to be talking past one another. Pulvar and Polony grow visibly annoyed. Each time the camera moves away, they wave their hands furiously, trying to get the host to call on them again. Lévy is undeterred, in full allusive mode, summoning the spirit of the International Brigades, the volunteers who once flooded Spain to fight the dictator Franco, until Polony finally cannot contain her impatience any longer and cuts in.

“The big difference,” she says, “is that they committed only themselves. You committed nations.”

When a reporter calls an American philosopher for an interview, the reporter is made to feel as intrusive as an alarm clock—you sense the stillness of the office, the vague unease about the telephone. French philosophers are the opposite. The French philosopher will respond to an e-mail eagerly, and in English, and remind you of the time difference, and then he will not only give you his phone number but explain the logic behind his phone number (“You press plus-three-three, which indicates France, yes? And then one, which is for Paris …”), and then he will buttress his account with episodes ripped from the recent headlines. You soon wonder if communicating with the American media is not a distraction at all for the French philosopher; perhaps it is his essential act.

Forty years ago, this space was occupied by giants—Sartre, Derrida, Foucault. “Of course, it is what everybody talks about: There is no Sartre anymore,” says Bruckner. But their place in French culture still exists, and Lévy has come to fill it. His grandfather was an Algerian-Jewish cowherd, but his father built a business empire, and Lévy grew up in the cordoned-off, dignified Paris suburb of Neuilly. He ascended with the speed of someone who assumed he had a big place in the world; he won entrance to the École Normale Supérieure, studied under Louis Althusser, tried to join the Israeli Army during the Six-Day War, and in his late twenties helped to define the new anti-Soviet stance of the French left. In 1971, moved by the heroism of Third World liberation fighters, Lévy traveled to Bangladesh and presented himself at the headquarters of the revolutionaries; he watched in Dhaka’s central square as a group of loyalists to the Pakistani government were hanged. By 1977, he had his first appearance on the iconic cultural television program Apostrophes. His look and features were already fixed. So were his ideas.

“In the back of his mind, I’m sure, was the idea that I might be delusional.”

Lévy was only on the fringes of the great revolutionary protests of 1968—he was still a teenager, and the line you hear is that while the French were rioting, he was consumed by his exams—but their failure shaped his world. Lévy abandoned orthodox Marxism for the more modest project of humanitarianism. If intellectuals were not competent to rearrange societies, at least they could recognize the moral atrocities of deprivation or genocide. “Lévy is really quite explicit,” says Julian Bourg of Boston College. “Politics have culminated in totalitarianism. All we have left is ethics.” The philosopher became an unusual, freelance conflict activist—camping out on the front lines and helping to focus the West’s attention on mass violence in Afghanistan, Sudan, Rwanda, and especially Bosnia. Lévy has always remained resolutely independent, with contacts but without political affiliations. He has become, the essayist Paul Berman says, “a one-man human-rights movement.”

Lévy’s great gift as a media figure is his willingness to play the devil, to make the most extreme case. “I like his incaution,” says Lévy’s friend Tina Brown, the editor of Newsweek and the Daily Beast. “He has the instinct to make everything into a stand.” Lévy’s is a sweeping-gesture politics. “Lack of care—maybe sometimes yes,” Lévy admits.

His friends and defenders like to distinguish between Lévy the philosopher and “BHL,” as he is referred to in the press—the frequently, almost consciously outlandish society persona Lévy has adopted. Though over time, the latter has almost completely swallowed the former. There is the costume and the weakness for bombast (he’s described his two great passions as writing and women). Eight years after writing a well-­received 2000 book on Sartre, he confessed in print to retaining almost nothing on the subject. Lévy’s third and current wife is the famous French actress Arielle Dombasle, for whom he co-wrote, directed, and produced a widely derided movie in 1997, Le Jour et La Nuit; the mockery was so intense that he produced a book in response to it. Lévy’s affect is easily Muppeted, and one of the French comedy shows features a pretty credible BHL doll. “French egalitarianism is a real illness,” says Lévy’s close friend the publisher Jean-Paul Enthoven in explaining the disdain. The philosopher himself is more forward. “They have no effect on my narcissism,” Lévy wrote in 2008 of his critics. “In the face of assaults, my ego is fireproof, shatterproof.”

But these two personas can’t really be separated; the grandstanding BHL infects Lévy’s humanitarianism, too. In June, Lévy flew to Jerusalem for a 90-minute audience with Benjamin Netanyahu and told the Israeli prime minister (and subsequently the press) that the Libyan rebels were prepared to normalize relations with Israel and had deputized him, Lévy, to bring the news to Israel. This news, once it made headlines, alarmed the Libyan rebels, who rushed to issue a statement saying Lévy was not operating on their behalf and that, in fact, they had never discussed Israel with him at all.

“It’s a kind of pretentious heroism to say that I, I, Bernard-Henri Lévy, can affect events,” says Marty Peretz, Lévy’s friend and editor emeritus of The New Republic. Peretz spends a minute musing over the proper analogy. “The idea of Byron is very deep,” he says. “When I try to conjure an image of Byron, it is open-shirted.”

On May 14, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF and a friend of Lévy’s, was arrested in New York, after a Sofitel maid named Nafi Diallo accused him of raping her in his hotel room. Strauss-Kahn claimed consensual sex, even though the two had never previously met and they were in the same room for all of fifteen minutes. The sheer implausibility of that scenario, and the brutal, colonialism-inflected symbolism of the encounter (Diallo was a very poor 32-year-old West African immigrant) had shaped the early coverage. When Strauss-Kahn was arrested onboard an Air France flight scheduled to depart JFK, it seemed to confirm the moral geometry: A powerful man had raped a powerless woman, assuming he’d get away with it.

To Lévy, the morality of the incident was almost precisely the opposite. Lévy wrote a column in the Daily Beast in which he defended Strauss-Kahn and attacked the prosecutors in uncompromising terms. He found it odd, he wrote, that the hotel maid had come in alone—in his experience, New York hotel maids attended to rooms in teams. He suggested a violation; he implied a conspiracy; he adopted the terms of humanitarian outrage.

One day in Paris, when we are sitting in the lobby bar of the Right Bank five-star Hotel le Bristol, I ask Lévy what had motivated this response. “Principle,” he says, gravely. “Principle.” I ask what the principle was. He sighs. “Class justice,” he says. “Twenty years ago, class justice was to be gentle with the rich and terrible with the poor. This was a problem. When you are a rich man, you can escape justice. When you are a poor man, stealing a fruit—how do you say, a ­pomme?—you went to jail. Today there is a reversal of the process. You have a lot of people who, if you are rich, powerful, and white, do not care if you are guilty or not guilty—you are guilty by principle. It is exactly the same but reversed. And for me, I cannot, I cannot—it is as unbearable as the other one.” On one side, he saw the noble individual, Strauss-Kahn; on the other, the horde.

“In the face of assaults, my ego is fireproof, shatterproof.”

I had first met Lévy earlier that week, at the famed Left Bank intellectual haunt Café de Flore, where our conversation was frequently interrupted by activists and journalists whom Lévy dispatched with his most obviously insincere smile. At the Bristol, he is more relaxed and funnier, and the interruptions are more welcome: a chauffeur delivering advance copies of a magazine, the singer Patrick Bruel introducing his 8-year-old son, Lévy taking a phone call from the son of the president of Senegal—“Karim! Have you seen my book? You and your father both?”

Lévy’s defense of Strauss-Kahn is an aristocrat’s. Paris has a strikingly tiny elite, and its connections are dense and interwoven. You could describe Lévy’s relationship with the French president, for instance, by saying that the two are linked in the humanitarian cause of Libya, or that they have roots in the same posh suburb, or that Lévy is the father of the novelist who was married to the professor who had an affair with the supermodel who later married Sarkozy. Each is true.

But to spend a few days traipsing around Paris in Lévy’s wake is to see a devotion to the ideal of male unfetteredness that is nearly ideological. A few years ago, he gave up his opulent place in Saint-Germain and moved into the Hotel Raphael, a five-star squat a couple of blocks from the Arc de Triomphe. In New York, he lives at the Hotel Carlyle. Lévy also has places in Tangiers and ­Marrakech and in the south of France, and he visits them each fitfully. “I like to have compartments in my life,” he says. “This is one of the most precious human rights. Not everybody to know everything.” (He also recently told a British magazine that he has never worn a tie in his life. “There was even a diplomatic incident when I met Pope John Paul II,” he said, “but it’s a physical impossibility. I cannot have a shirt buttoned to the neck. I suffocate.”)

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.”

European Superhero Quashes Libyan Dictator