The Envoy

In “Sarkozy’s war” in Libya, a not-so-hidden hand

The Envoy

View photo



When historians write the story of the international military intervention against Libya's Muammar Gadhafi, they will find much to mine in the role of French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy in swaying Nicholas Sarkozy to champion the cause.

"B.H.L.", as he is called, is the rare public intellectual with a national nickname and a deeply unbuttoned shirt. He is one part noble humanitarian and champion of the oppressed, as well as one part soap opera.

The New York Times' Steve Erlanger reports on B.H.L.'s influence in the Libyan conflict:

It was Mr. Lévy, by his own still undisputed account, who brought top members of the Libyan opposition — the Interim Transitional National Council — from Benghazi to Paris to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy on March 10, who suggested the unprecedented French recognition of the council as the legitimate government of Libya and who warned Mr. Sarkozy that unless he acted, "there will be a massacre in Benghazi, a bloodbath, and the blood of the people of Benghazi will stain the flag of France."

Mr. Lévy, a celebrated philosopher, journalist and public intellectual, gives Mr. Sarkozy sole credit for persuading London, Washington and others to support intervention in Libya. [...]

He is known simply as B.H.L., a man of inherited wealth, a socialist whose trademarks — flowing hair, black suits, unbuttoned white shirts, thin blond women — can undercut his passionate campaigning on public causes, including stopping in Rwanda and Bosnia, strong support for Israel and an early critique of France's unthinking fascination with Communism, revolution and the Soviet Union.

His flamboyant advocacy has annoyed many in the past, including the current foreign minister, Alain Juppé, who seemed largely excluded from Mr. Lévy's Libyan initiative. Mr. Lévy negotiated directly with Mr. Sarkozy, with whom Mr. Lévy has an extremely complicated relationship going back to 1983.

While they were friends and once vacationed together, Mr. Lévy openly supported Mr. Sarkozy's Socialist opponent in the 2007 presidential election; Mr. Sarkozy then married Carla Bruni, who had broken up the marriage of Mr. Lévy's daughter, Justine, who wrote a novel about it. [...]

Paris-based Newsweek/The Daily Beast correspondent Christopher Dickey adds:

Then Sarkozy's wife ditched him and Sarkozy hooked up with Carla Bruni, who had previously stolen the husband of BHL's daughter. To describe relations among the French elite as incestuous is almost literally true.

Even as BHL took off for Libya at the beginning of last month with Sarkozy's blessing, the relationship between the two remained uneasy. It was a mission on a wing and a prayer. Inveterate networker BHL knew no one in the country, in fact. He had to hitch a ride in a vegetable vendor's panel truck to get to Benghazi. And once he was there the protestors seemed to be losing the revolutionary fervor that had enabled them to seize half the populated areas of the country with scarcely a shot fired in the previous weeks. "What I smelled was the democratic revolution cooling down," BHL recalls. His cause was slipping away from beneath him. And at the same time, Gaddafi's forces had begun to regroup for a counteroffensive. So BHL grew bolder. With a lot of name-dropping, he got himself invited to a meeting of the newly named Interim National Transitional Council.

On a sketchy old satellite phone that shut off every few minutes, BHL repeatedly called Sarkozy—who put up with the interruptions—and brokered a deal for a Libyan delegation to be received in Paris at the presidential palace. Two days later, on Monday, March 7, BHL was back in Paris, meeting with the president. Sarkozy said he'd take the extraordinary step of recognizing the rebels' government the following Thursday. Then BHL took an extraordinary step of his own. He asked Sarkozy to keep the whole thing a secret from the Germans, who were already expressing reservations about supporting the Libyan uprising—and also from French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, who would, BHL insisted, "throw a wrench in the works."

Sarkozy was riding high just then. He bragged to the Libyans that he'd have no problem persuading the European Union to back his play. But at a summit in Brussels the day after he recognized their government, he found "the door slammed in his face," says a friend. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to distance herself from French bellicosity, and, following her lead, the German press branded Sarkozy and BHL "a pair of egomaniacs." The French president also took a pounding from one of the news magazines owned by Gaddafi's best friend in Europe, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi. The cover of Panorama showed Sarkozy dressed as a demented Napoleon. Meanwhile Juppé was left to soldier on in the diplomatic trenches, working with several disgruntled allies to get the all-important imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council. ....

(Iranian lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei, right, then French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, left , and French philosopher Bernard Henry Levy arrive for a press conference in Paris, Monday, Sept. 6, 2010: Michel Euler/AP)

View Comments (0)