To talk about BHL and Libya, and by extension France’s presence in Africa, is to talk about the hell created by well-meaning and self-proclaimed democracy crusaders.
Rabat – Bernard-Henri Levy’s long-running Libyan saga, BHL’s unwitting romance with Libya and its relegation in the league of “failed states” recently resurfaced in the spotlight. In a characteristic burt of audacity, the eccentric French philosopher returned to the North African country to document the horror of the ongoing war.
BHL, as the philosopher-journalist-activist-filmmaker is known in French and Francophone intellectuals circles, had come to Libya to report on the country’s continued plight.
He says he wanted to understand and help explain: What has happened since he triumphantly visited the country in 2011, when he was the most vocal cheerleader of military intervention; what has since gone wrong; who are the “real culprits” of the horrendous news clips and gut-wrenching analyses that now come out of Libya; how to get out of the post-Gaddafi mess.
Humanitarianism gone awry
At least that was BHL’s plan, but unbeknown to him was the fact that most Libyans had plans of their own, too. That they have not forgotten; they cannot forget. BHL should have known better than to return to a country where his advocacy journalism and behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering, however noble and well-meaning, have mainly resulted in chaos and desolation. He of all people should have known that it takes a very long time to heal the wounds and disillusions of an entire nation.
After all, BHL was — and still is — the “intellectual” face of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. Many scholars and analysts now consider it the starting point of everything that has since spectacularly gone wrong for Libya and the entire Saharan corridor.
So one would not expect BHL to travel to Libya. Not now at least. Not when the country, once a revered regional actor, has still not emerged from the chaos and devastation that BHL’s advocacy, among others, brought on it. But the philosopher’s interviews and writings overflow with evocations of his moral “bravery” and intellectual audacity. And the thing about audacity is that, unchecked and unmanaged, it is bound to morph into a vile spectacle of grandstanding and self-entitlement.
The result is infuriating grandiosity and puerile outbursts of self-righteousness. The self-indulgent “victim” points accusatory fingers at the entire world for daring to question his or her motivations. For wounding his or her pride. For not bestowing him or her with the honors and hero welcome he or she expected.
Of course, this is an exaggeration. On closer reading, however, it explains much of what happened during BHL’s “hectic return to Libya,” as well as the philosopher’s response.
Almost one month ago, on July 25, the French philosopher traveled to Misrata, nearly 200 kilometers east of the capital Tripoli. Landing in a private jet, wearing his signature shirt — immaculately white — and bearing a message of “democracy,” “peace,” and “our shared humanity,” BHL wanted to see what has become of Libya, of his “Libyan spring.”
He planned to stay for two days, during which he expected to conduct interviews, hold high-level meetings, and inspect the “killing fields”—a reference to the recently unveiled mass graves Khalifa Haftar’s forces left behind as they fled Tarhouna. However, as a number of the Tripoli-based and UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) officers took BHL to Tarhouna, a group of armed men, also GNA loyals according to reports, intercepted the convoy.
There was an exchange of gunshots, as well as expressions of frustration and anger during the frenzy. The attackers did not want BHL in Libya, as the video clip of the incident that later found its way to Twitter clearly depicts. In the commotion, some of the armed protesters hurled antisemtic insults at the journalist, asking what business “this Jewish dog” had in their country.
Later venting his disgust and frustration on Twitter, the Frenchman rightly condemned the attackers’ unconscionable antisemitism. In another tweet, BHL, insisting that insults and intimidations could not affect his determination, or take his focus from his reportage mission, shared a photo of himself standing on the site of the Tarhouna mass graves alongside a group of GNA officers.
“Today, July 25. Killing field at Tarhuna. This city suffered martyrdom from #Khadafi. 47 cadavers, including children, hands tightened in the back, have been recently excavated : they suffered martyrdom from pro #Haftar proxies. My sorrow. My anger. Solidarity with #Tarhuna,” he beamed. BHL delights in defiance.
In his subsequent online ratiocinations, BHL claimed he had come to Libya on assignment for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and that his trip and schedule had been sanctioned by the Libyan Ministry of the Interior. Both claims were later shattered, however.
Colleen Schwarz, a spokesperson for WSJ, said that while BHL has collaborated with the newspaper’s opinion section on a number of occasions, WSJ had nothing to do with his Libyan trip. Fathi Bashagha, Libya’s Interior Minister, was harsher in his dismissal of BHL’s claims.
Not only did the Libyan official insist that the Tripoli government did not sanction BHL’s reportage trip, but he suggested the French philosopher’s move was unnecessary and ill-timed. “Some parties are fishing in troubled waters to serve specific political agendas,” he said.
The anointed intellectual
But BHL got what he came for. Mostly, at least. In the series of articles he later wrote on the trip, he did what he does best: He lectured and flaunted his ideological superiority.
He told a tale of love, bravery, and humanity that portrayed thinkers of his breed as the voice of reason and composure in a mad world. He spoke of his fight for democracy and human rights in faraway places. His tone bore that unmistakable, even if subtle and inaudibly murmured, paternalism of those anointed with a “civilizing mission” in godforsaken places.
For Tablet, the excellent Jewish American magazine, BHL told the tale of his Libyan (mis)adventure from the vantage point of French intellectualism.
He dwelt on the genesis of his political education, going to great lengths to show how he was philosophically and intellectually molded in the philosophy of defiance and intellectual courage that marked France in the 1960s and 1970s. In BHL’s telling, he may be one of the last standing greats of the endangered species of the audacious intellectual who defies conventional wisdom, tells truth to power, and has no qualms about dying or being hated for their noble, enlightened ideas.
“It is one of the poverties of a time when nothing remotely related to greatness or even loftiness can be uttered without incurring the wrath or the modern Eumenides of bounded thinking,” he wrote.
Another piece on the same trip, written for WSJ, makes similar points, albeit in less philosophical language. It constrained itself to showing what BHL’s “Libyan ambush” taught him about the danger and beauty of fighting against tyranny; about the promises and pitfalls of democratization struggles in our tumultuous era.
But it was his reporting for Paris Match, longer and more philosophical, that got to the bottom of what BHL thought he was doing in Libya. And what was it, exactly? BHL doesn’t say it as overtly as one would expect of his usually candid prose. But he didn’t have to, as almost every subtle reference to democracy and human rights screamed it for him, drumming into readers’ skulls the image of BHL as a global democracy and freedom crusader.
As in 2011, BHL thinks he was saving Libya; that he was salvaging its hard-won democracy by denouncing tyrants like Erdogan and Putin who, we are told, are making a failed state out of the thriving Libyan-style democracy that the NATO intervention created.
He clung to his belief that the 2011 intervention was necessary — and successful — and called on Western powers to intervene again to discourage the growing assertiveness of Putin and Erdogan. “Libya is at a crossroads. So are we,” he wrote. “But let’s be careful. It is here, on these shores, that the future of the Mediterranean and of Europe is being played out in part.”
Far be it from me to caricature BHL. For everything said about the French philosopher, especially by critics who have mocked and rightly called out his savior or messiah complex, BHL is, essentially, no Nicholas Kristof.
He gets it all wrong in Libya, but I do not think he is a phony. If anything, he is undoubtedly one of the sharpest minds of France’s “nouveaux philosophes” movement. And, far from the jargon-loving and ambiguity-mystifying spectacle of French intellectualism, BHL’s prose is exquisitely readable. His voice, which he prefers to be lyrical, is resonant and sometimes affecting.
At its best, BHL’s philosophy and activism is the closest thing to Emmanuel Levinas’ take on alterity and identity. He magnifies universal responsibility and solidarity, endlessly taking ombrage in Levinas’s notion of the incomparable and infectious humanity of a sad, hopeless face screaming for help.
The naked face of the other “grabs me, compels me, summons me,” Levinas memorably wrote. “In front of a face, I always demand more of myself.” This is all too good, commendable even. But it becomes problematic, murky, when seized upon by radical interventionists — and BHL is one, by most measures — who think military invasion is the ultimate solution, regardless of the disastrous “unintended consequences.” As history has shown time and again, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
To talk about BHL and Libya — and by extension France’s presence in Africa — it helps a lot to start where BHL does not wish to start. To shed some light on facts and notions that he would rather evade, cavalierly dismissing their importance for his “Libyan ambush” and the wider, rising anti-French sentiment across Africa.
Jean Ping, the Gabonese diplomat who chaired the African Union Commission in 2008-2012, hates BHL. The Gabonese explains why in his tell-all book — and article — about NATO’s “misguided” and “counterproductive” intervention in Libya.
As he grapples to make sense of the fragile and explosive context in which Gaddafi was “murdered,” Ping presents BHL as the quintessential example of the banal disruptiveness of strategic overreach, ideological arrogance, and liberal romanticism.
Why kill Gaddafi if there was no hard-thought plan for the aftermath? Did the West even know what they were doing in Libya? Had they considered the catastrophic ramifications that a failed Libya could have for the entire Saharan corridor? Were France — and BHL — and its NATO allies really interested in “democratizing” Libya?
These are some of the questions Ping raises. His answer: The West couldn’t care less about the welfare of Libyans. “All they wanted was to get rid of Khadaffi” and take ample advantage of the country’s vast oil fields. You can say what you want about Ping’s reasoning. You can even, and understandably so, label his thinking as over-simplistic, lopsided, or self-serving. But the facts back him up.
His is a case against nice-sounding, grandiose, and well-meaning but shortsighted policies that end up ruining the very lives they were putatively designed to save. It is a critique of the fiascoes and delusions of grandeur of the West’s policy elites and profoundly compromised humanitarian crusaders. It calls for a deconstruction of the pernicious, so-called unintended consequences of foreign interventions.
The point is not that foreign intervention is inherently bad, or should always be out of the question. The idea is that help is only helpful when it takes into account the needs and agency — social and historical — of the people one seeks to assist.
Foreign intervention, which is sometimes the last resort, or even the best course of action, should not be the “let’s clean up these countries’ mess” condescending mantra it has become. Rather, it should be a painstaking, far-sighted exercise in deep, meaningful familiarization with the relevant history and socio-economic contexts.
BHL’s universalist sentimentality can bring a smile to a sad, dejected face. It can, at its best, help to start a much-needed conversation between rival factions or countries. But history is so replete with instances of noble ideas creating ignoble realities that most scholars and far-sighted foreign policy practitioners are now heavily suspicious of the nostalgic romance of “liberal hegemony.”
The hell of good intentions
And so, while he did not care to even fleetingly consider whether his “Libyan ambush” could be traced back to the disastrous intervention he cheered and helped orchestrate in 2011, BHL’s Libyan misadventure most probably has more to do with anti-French blowback than the Muslim world’s supposedly inherent antisemtism.
On trial in Tarhouna was BHL’s role in France’s dubious dealings in Libya. Without justifying his attackers’ unconscionable verbal and physical violence, it is easy to understand where their anger comes from.
As Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk put it in a brilliant essay called “The Anger of the Damned,” “It is a great shame that the Western world pays so little attention to the overwhelming sense of humiliation felt by most people in the world.” For Pamuk, nothing has been more critical in pushing forth the so-called civilizational clash than the “West’s refusal to understand the anger of the damned.”
This is exactly what transpired from most commentaries and news reports across Africa and the Middle East. They tried to wrap their heads around BLH’s effrontery and recklessness in coming to Libya, a country that bears festering wounds inflicted on it by BHL and his fellow adherents of the “Right to protect” school.
In “The Hell of Good Intentions,” his 2018 book on America’s fading primacy in world affairs, Stephen M. Walt, one of the world’s leading realist scholars, speaks of the monumental failures and calamitous miscalculations Washington’s foreign policy establishment sanctioned in recent years.
Walt writes: “America’s ambitious attempt to reorder world politics undermined its own position, sowed chaos in several regions, and caused considerable chaos in a number of countries.” This applies, too, to Françafrique, Paris’s illegal and feverish meddling in the domestic affairs of its former African colonies in order to maintain them in its orbit.
In this, BHL’s Libyan ambush was largely a boycott of the foreign policy school — and country — with which he is associated.
Trapped inside the bubble of his own outsized certainties about how to solve the world’s problems, however, BHL doggedly maintains, despite a mounting wealth of contradictory evidence, that his role in Libya makes him a champion of enforced enlightenment and human progress. But Libya’s plight, should BHL pay closer attention, is a reminder that nothing is farther from the truth.
Had BHL’s ambushers chosen words rather than a muscular show of their wrath, they would have perhaps told him, as a former British colonial subject is reported to have told one British official: “Please do not do any more good in my country…We have suffered too much already from all the good that you have done.”