After the Libyan War: BHL: Why we were right to go in

26 August 2011
Le Point Paris

I bomb, therefore I am. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy before Gaddafi tanks destroyed by French air strikes. Ajdabiya, near Benghazi, March 2011.
I bomb, therefore I am. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy before Gaddafi tanks destroyed by French air strikes. Ajdabiya, near Benghazi, March 2011.

The famous French philosopher, who inspired Nicolas Sarkozy’s commitment to the cause in Libya, argues that the west should not let itself be intimidated by dictators. The Muammar Gaddafi’s of this world are only “paper tigers.”

It was open season in the press! The campaign was bogged down. The rebels were disorganised, undisciplined, good for nothings. The NTC [Libya’s National Transitional Council] was divided, torn between rival factions, and tribal interests. When the time came, the tribes loyal to Gaddafi would offer fierce and long-drawn out resistance in their Tripoli bastions. As for Nicolas Sarkozy, he had embarked on a dubious and poorly planned venture, which had his political friends scrambling to rescue him. The truth of the matter was that this was yet another manifestation of an age old political cleavage. On the one hand, there was the eternal family – not of enemies of the people, or friends of despots – but of those who are overawed by power and enthralled by tyranny, to the point where they are unable to acknowledge or even to imagine that the order of dictators could be as transitory and ephemeral as any other human order, perhaps even more so. Ranged against them, there were those for whom this strange passion, this paralysis of the soul prompted by the sight of the Gorgon or the cold monster, was not enough to obscure their judgement: those who could simply understand that dictatorships are only sustained by the credibility attributed to them, that is to say by the fear they instill in their subjects and the reverence they inspire in the rest of the world. And when this credibility disappears, when its spell has run its course and vanishes like a mirage, then dictatorships collapse like sand castles and are no more terrifying than paper tigers. When the time comes, I will write a full account of what I witnessed both within and beyond the borders of Libya during six months which may have changed the face of the of the early 21st century. But for now, I would like to pay homage to those in Libya and elsewhere who did not abandon this aspiration, which is so natural but which seemed so outlandish to so many others, for the simple freedom of men. I would like to pay homage to the Libyan fighters whom I had the privilege to encounter on the fronts in Brega, Ajdabiya, Goualich, and Misrata. I would like to set the record straight for those commentators who dared to claim that in the battle with Gaddafi’s diabolical legions they would scatter like rabbits: the rebels were the embodiment of what, in the course of my life, I have always found to be the invincible force of those who make war but have no love for conflict. I would also like to speak of the probity of the NTC, which I saw emerge from its infancy to gain in maturity: those men and women from diverse traditions – long-standing democrats, defectors from Gaddafism, returned exiles and internal resistants – with hardly any experience of democracy or specialist military knowledge, but who, in spite of everything, were able to add a glorious page to the history of the world’s resistance movements. I want to pay tribute to the European pilots, and in particular to the French pilots, who, on occasion, put their lives in danger to avoid hitting civilian targets. They fought a war that was not wholly theirs to fight, but with a mission mandated by the United Nations to come to the rescue of civilians, and in so doing, to weather the ardent criticism of those who had infinite patience for the pace of change in a dictatorship of 42 years standing, but none whatsoever for the progress of a campaign to save the innocent, which was found to be interminably slow once it extended beyond 100 days. And finally with regard to Nicolas Sarkozy, we may not share all of his views, or even, as I do, disagree with the rest of his policies: but how can we fail to acknowledge that it was under his presidency that France took the initiative to accompany the birth of liberty in Libya? How can we fail to fail to pay homage to the extraordinary tenacity that he demonstrated at every stage of the war? And how can we fail to acknowledge that, in contrast to Francois Mitterrand who stubbornly refused to do anything other than allow Bosnia be torn apart, Nicolas Sarkozy was willing to take the initiative to preserve the integrity of Libya? With support from France and their other allies, the Libyan rebels have written a new page in the history of their country. In so doing, they have inaugurated a new era that will doubtless bring about major change in an entire region, and, in particular, in Syria. And this military intervention will be remembered as the obverse of the war in Iraq: a campaign that was not imposed on a silent people by democratic powers, but one that was provided in response to an appeal from a resistance movement, which had appointed a temporary but legitimate council to represent it. The war in Libya will bring about enduring change. It will herald the end of a long-standing notion of sovereignty which turns a blind eye to all sorts of crimes provided they are perpetrated within the borders of another sovereign state. And it will usher in a conception of universal rights which will be more than a pious aspiration but an ardent obligation for anyone who truly believes in the unity of the human race, and in the virtue of the right to interfere which is its corollary. For Libya, the current juncture will naturally be marked by questions, doubts, mistakes, the settling of scores and initial setbacks, but at such a time, only the most mediocre among us could fail to be swayed by the pure joy that every aspect of this remarkable event should inspire.

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern

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