Bernard-Henri Levy and the West's Intervention in Libya: A Discussion with Experts

Film critics at Cannes, including Jay Weissberg of Variety, trashed Bernard-Henri Levy's new documentary Oath of Tobruk, about his intervention in Libya last year, for being full of bluster and embarrassingly self-involved. Unfortunately the film is so cheesy (see my own earlier review) that its extremely important topic -- BHL's independent mission to help the Libyan rebels' cause -- is given short shrift. BHL claims four points in his film: 1) that he himself changed the course of history with one long-distance phone call to Sarkozy, in which he convinced the French president to meet and recognize the rebel leaders of the NTC (National Transitional Council) 2) that France was majorly responsible for the Western intervention that led to the downfall of Gaddafi 3) that Libya is a success story and 4) that the West should follow BHL's own example and intervene similarly in Syria.

Despite the poor quality of the film, were any of these points valid?

I turned to the leading experts of Libya to discuss: Dartmouth professor Dirk Vandewalle, the West's most famous Libya expert, whom the U.N. consulted before its engagement; Juan Cole, renowned political commentator and scholar on the Middle East at the University of Michigan; Jason Pack, researcher of Libyan history at the University of Cambridge and president of; Alan Kuperman, specialist in humanitarian intervention at University of Texas (Austin), and Frederic Wehrey, senior associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who wrote on the Libyan civil war for the New York Times.

Point 1: BHL'S Importance

Juan Cole commented from Libya: "I have my disagreements with him, but if BHL did, as is said, convince Sarkozy to intervene, then he played a pretty important role."

Every scholar I spoke to agreed that, as BHL's film indicates, Sarkozy's recognition of the NTC was a pivotal action in getting the ball rolling towards international intervention. "It is fair to say that France took the lead in getting the Security Council to convene, and make NATO vote," commented Alan Kuperman, speaking from Copenhagan. "The U.S. was very reluctant to intervene, because of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Secretary of Defense went on record to say that it would not be a good idea for the U.S. to attack another Muslim country. The U.S. did not want to be embarrassed that France cared more."

Sarkozy's motivation may not only have been his friend BHL, however. "He had been on the wrong side in Tunisia," Kuperman continued. "His minister was buddy buddy with the president of Tunisia, so it looked like France supported the authoritarian leader, and this was an embarrassment to Sarkozy. He wanted to get back on the right side of history and one way to do it was to support the revolution in Libya." Historian Jason Pack at Cambridge had a similar assessment: "Sarkozy is a Gaullist at heart; he believes in aggrandizing French power." In foreign policy, his aim was to make France great again.

If that was Sarkozy's intention, it worked -- at least for the Libyans. Frederic Wehrey, who was recently in Libya interviewing locals re: their opinions on the liberation, informed me that "they love the French in Benghazi"; there is even a Sarkozy café in town.

Although it was also true that he "did not hear BHL's name mentioned once." This despite the point made in Oath of Tobruk that "on September 15, Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and [yes] Bernard Henri-Levy are cheered in Benghazi" -- and the attending footage of cheering crowds.

Point 2: France was responsible for the downfall of Gaddafi The film makes it seem that France -- with some help -- was the major military force in Libya: i.e. the key player in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. Not true.

Speaking from Benghazi via Skype, the leading Western authority on Libya, Vandewalle comments:

"There is no doubt that the French recognition was an important step. But it was not the key step. France's intervention without the U.S. and NATO would not have succeeded. To just focus on France is dramatically overstating the case. All the Western partners became active as soon as Resolution 1973 was adopted by the United Nations, that created the No-Fly zone."

As for the idea that France guided the rebels during the Libyan civil war: it ignores that there was an enormous amount of chaos, different groups in Libya, and there was not a single group. The NTC was the political group, and there were many different groups of militia fighting.

"In the end what defeated Gaddafi was NATO intervention and the US. NATO alone logistically could not have won the war without substantial US capacity to back its efforts. As for the claim that BHL was responsible for opening the Western front that eventually led to the invasion of Tripoli, I think the record suggests that some French and other Western intelligence support for the Western brigades was crucial, but pinning this down solely on French actions is distorting the record substantially."

And did BHL's actions convince Hillary Clinton to intervene?


"U.S. was hands-off, but there was enormous domestic internal pressure on Obama," Vandewalle explained to me. "The Arab League was looking for partnership. NATO gave a clear signal. They wanted to make sure Russia and China were on board, so the Russians or Chinese would not veto a resolution. And while Hillary Clinton was obviously a privileged player, such a decision could not be made singlehandedly."

Point 3: Libya Now?

BHL: "Libya is now a free country with diplomatic relations."

Any random conversation in France about BHL -- critical of the same -- will invariably end up with a sardonic comment: "And Libya now? How do we know intervention was the right thing?"

Alan Kuperman vehemently supported such a critical outlook.

"There is no order, no security, no government services, the economy is in shambles, there is ethnic cleansing (in Tawergha). If the goal was to save lives, this was an abject failure. It is unequivocal that many more people died because of intervention in Libya. Gaddafi was not targeting civilians; this was propaganda from the rebels, which BHL was embracing, and it was a big lie. Gaddafi was targeting rebels. The number of casualties were low. If there had been no NATO intervention, Gaddafi would have won the war on March 20, and the total number of dead would have been 1000."

He came to a shocking conclusion: "When interviewed, 42 percent of Libyans say that they want a new strong man like Gaddafi. Human rights is worse than under Gaddafi; [back then], you could be totally safe if you did not challenge his authority. In today's Libya, you have no security. It's anarchy."

Yet Kuperman's (self-admittedly) is a minority view.

Jason Pack commented tersely:

"Gaddafi considered OK in today's Libya? That isn't what Libyans are saying: as frustrated as many are with today's lack of security, no one wants to go back to a strongman. Besides, why discuss now whether Libya would have been better off with or without intervention? Political analysts don't deal with counterfactuals. The current situation in Libya post-liberation may have deteriorated due to the NTC's poor ability to consolidate power, with the militias left largely in control, but none of this means that the NATO No-fly zone and the concept of intervention per se wasn't morally and strategically justified and successful executed. The West helped a genuinely Libyan movement to overthrow their dictator."

Vandewalle commented from Libya:

"It was a successful intervention; whether in the long-run, the hopes for democracy will pan out as yet, no one knows; the upcoming elections will be an important threshold. Yes, there is a good amount of lingering chaos, but also a slowly growing record that bit by bit the central government is gaining some traction -- something that is hard to understand for those who are on the outside looking in. One of the real problems that the NTC will face is that they are starting from zero, with little capacity to address an enormous array of problems. Libyans seem reasonably optimistic, and certainly the amount of freedom the average person now has makes him or her a lot happier than before comparatively, despite the chaos and occasional set-backs."

Wehrey confirmed the same, from his recent fieldwork in Benghazi:

"The country existed for 42 years with little governing experience; the country was traumatized by this. There is no national army, few ATM machines, no organized trash collection, militias everywhere controlling different cities, even the airports. On the surface, it looks very unsettling, what with the sporadic fire, turf battles. But there is tremendous euphoria: people are organizing political parties, women have a chance to vote; there is no dictator rising."

Point 4: Syria

BHL: "I am willing to come tomorrow to Washington to show Hillary Clinton my movie, to show Francois Holland: when they see the image of Misrata, this is to be replaced by Alep. When they see Tripoli, they are to think Damascus. I hope that this film will be used as a tool for an action in Syria."

Out of everyone I spoke to, only Bernard Henri-Levy thought Syria could be a carbon copy of Libya. Unlike the rebellion in Libya, Syria's situation is "really a civil war: the ethnic divides are stronger"(Wehrey). Plus, "there are the ruling Alawites who make up 11 percent of the Syrian population, many of whom will stand by the regime until their dying breath"(Pack). And the major issue: no international accord. China and Russia support the Assad government, and they would not allow for a NATO intervention. The Arab League would not give its stamp of approval. The ethnic groups (like the Kurds) with ties to nearby countries, such as Turkey, and support from allies, like Iran, would provoke international conflict.

For Kuperman: "intervention would destabilize the whole region."


In sum: I am glad BHL made that phone call to Sarkozy. As for Syria: I open the debate to the HuffPost community.

Article written in memory of my roommate Mary Lincoln Johnson and my friend David Dornstein, killed in the bombing of the Pan Am 103 plane over Lockerbie.