SPIEGEL Interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy 'We Lost a Great Deal of Time in Libya Because of the Germans'
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has been a fierce proponent of military intervention in Libya. SPIEGEL spoke with him about Germany's "shameful" abstention from the UN Security Council resolution, the democratic leanings of rebel leaders in Libya and why some in the West might want the Arab spring to come to an end.
SPIEGEL: Monsieur Lévy, are you satisfied with your war?
Lévy: I don't call this war. It's Gadhafi who is waging a war.
SPIEGEL: What then do you call what allied bombers are doing in Libya?
Lévy: The bombers are preventing Gadhafi from waging his war. A war against his own people and against the international community.
SPIEGEL: Does this mean that you're satisfied with the military approach in Libya?
Lévy: I am satisfied with the fact that a bloodbath was prevented in Benghazi. When French aircraft destroyed four tanks just outside the city, I thought of the soldiers who died as a result. It's horrible. But I also thought of the 700,000 residents of Benghazi, whom Gadhafi had threatened with merciless vengeance, and who were spared a horrific massacre, at least so far.
SPIEGEL: You are the man who led France into this war, as a result of your influence on President Nicolas Sarkozy. Was there no alternative?
Lévy: No. Everything was tried, but Gadhafi is a madman, autistic -- he refused to listen. In the night before the summit in Paris, I spent hours on the phone with friends in Benghazi. I tried to allay their fears. They were torn between the fear of Gadhafi's troops and the hope that coalition aircraft would arrive in time. It was a race against time.
SPIEGEL: And a race with an outcome that remains uncertain.
Lévy: Yes, we're seeing this in Misurata. Gadhafi has positioned his tanks in the downtown area, targeting the hospital and shooting the wounded. People are staying in their houses to hide from snipers. Benghazi was saved, but now there is bloodshed in Misurata instead.
SPIEGEL: Does President Sarkozy keep you informed of developments?
Lévy: Yes, he calls me once in a while.
SPIEGEL: To discuss the situation with you?
Lévy: That depends. He asked me, for example, to deliver a message to Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the Libyan transitional council. Unfortunately I am not at liberty to discuss the contents of the message.
SPIEGEL: The Americans have now relinquished command of the operation, while NATO has hammered out a compromise. You, on the other hand, sound more optimistic than the situation in the country warrants.
Lévy: The decision to intervene was made very quickly, because the world could not afford to lose so much as a minute. As a result, not everything could be taken into account and determined in detail. We had to improvise, which is normal.
SPIEGEL: Did France do everything right?
Lévy: There was no alternative, except to act even sooner. If the decision had been made to intervene five or six days earlier, bombing three airports would have been sufficient.
SPIEGEL: How do you feel about the behavior of the German government, which abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote authorizing the use of military force?
Lévy: We lost a great deal of time because of the Germans, which is a disaster, mainly for the Libyans, but also for the Germans, who will pay bitterly for abstaining. What happened here will leave a lasting impression in Europe. And Germany will run into problems in its legitimate effort to secure a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel jettisoned all principles of German foreign policy since the end of World War II: There was the principle that something like National Socialism should never happen again. Never again crimes against humanity. Merkel and (German Foreign Minister Guido) Westerwelle violated this pact. This is a serious incident, not a minor detail.
SPIEGEL: In years past, German governments have made decisions based on a case-by-case basis. The government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder supported the Balkan campaign but was against the Iraq invasion. Now the Merkel administration doesn't believe that the intervention will be successful. Westerwelle says that the consequences are unforeseeable. You cannot predict what will happen either.
Lévy: Angela Merkel has the worst foreign minister Germany has had in a long time. Guido Westerwelle is a disaster. Immediately after the German abstention, he told your magazine: "Gadhafi has to go." It's really Westerwelle who ought to go, but he doesn't even seem to be ashamed of his decision, of this valley of shame.
SPIEGEL: Is what is happening in Libya right now a "just war?"
Lévy: I prefer to call it an unavoidable war. Unavoidable because of Gadhafi's acts of barbarism, unless, of course, one decides, as Guido Westerwelle and Angela Merkel have done, to wash one's hands in the blood of the Libyans -- the people Gadhafi attacked with fighter jets while they were protesting peacefully.
SPIEGEL: You, Monsieur Lévy, say it's a crime not to intervene. But why should one do something in which one doesn't believe?
Lévy: It is a crime to allow something like this to happen. If someone is being slaughtered in front your house and you just look away, then it's a crime. Incidentally, your former foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, agrees with this position.
SPIEGEL: When you left Benghazi in early March, what did the situation there look like?
Lévy: Libya was an occupied country. An army of mercenaries was at war with a civilian population that had no weapons but was full of hope. This absolute drive for freedom and democracy had taken hold of the country, as it has in almost all Arab countries, and in a population that was believed to be doomed to living in a dictatorship. I said that to the French president when I called him from Benghazi, and again after my return to Paris.
SPIEGEL: What exactly did you say to him on the phone?
Lévy: I told him that I had met people whose courage I admired. That these people deserved our trust. And that I thought it would be an honor for France were its president to receive them. Sarkozy's response came immediately. He said: Yes, of course I'll do it.
SPIEGEL: Do you know whom you are supporting by going to war?
Lévy: I met these people there and later here in Paris. They are not religious fanatics. They believe that Islam is a matter of faith and not a matter for the government. They want an Islam that is only the business of the individual, but not one that dictates its laws to society. The members of the National Transitional Council, whom I met, are sophisticated, alert people. Many of them have studied at European or American universities.
SPIEGEL: But they will not be the people who assume power in six months or a year.
Lévy: They are members of a transitional council, of course. But there will be a constitution, elections and a government. I believe these people are well aware that they are in the middle of a revolutionary process with an uncertain outcome. We are not dealing here with a clique that wants control over power and natural resources. I believe that they are democrats.
SPIEGEL: A lot depends on your assessment.
Lévy: That's why I choose my words carefully. Of course they are not all angels. Some served under Gadhafi and then revolted against him. But someone like Mustafa Abdul Jalil, for example, the former justice minister, says very clearly and without dramatizing that he will only have fulfilled his mission on Earth once he has helped his country and brought down Gadhafi. He wants a constitution and free elections.
- Part 1: 'We Lost a Great Deal of Time in Libya Because of the Germans'
- Part 2: 'A Black Pearl in the Nazi Oyster'