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.
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy at a press conference with Libyan representatives on March 22.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy at a press conference with Libyan representatives on March 22.


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.

'A Black Pearl in the Nazi Oyster'

SPIEGEL: You were against the Iraq war. Why do you believe this intervention is legitimate?

Lévy: The Iraq war was illegitimate and a violation of international law. The intervention in Libya was approved by a majority in the UN Security Council. That's the big difference.

SPIEGEL: The UN foresees intervention only in the case of war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity.

Lévy: And how many dead does it take to qualify for an emergency? How high is the threshold? That's cynical. In 1996, Gadhafi had 1,200 prisoners shot to death at the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. Wasn't that a crime against humanity? And when you attack unarmed demonstrators with fighter jets and have them shoot at the crowd, it's nothing other than a war crime.

SPIEGEL: But doesn't the intervention make it more difficult to find a political solution for Libya?

Lévy: This isn't the West's war. The Arab League asked us for help, aircraft from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are involved in the mission, and the Tunisian and Egyptian people morally support this intervention. This has nothing to do with a Western crusade. As far as the political solution is concerned, there is only one: to eliminate Gadhafi politically. If we allow him to do as he wishes, perhaps even negotiating with him, it'll be the end of the Arab spring. In fact, this was probably what some governments in the West wanted.

SPIEGEL: That's nothing but speculation!

Lévy: I'm not entirely sure whether everyone in the West was all that interested in seeing this Arab spring continue until the summer. Do we know whether the American government really wants to get rid of Gadhafi? Aren't there perhaps some people who feel that it's time to put an end to this wave of revolutions? Because they are determined to prevent it from reaching strategically important countries like Saudi Arabia. Can we be sure that there are not those who see Libya as a sort of fire extinguisher, preventing the flames from spreading? The West is very divided over the issue of whether democracy is the best guarantee for good relations with the Arab world, or whether it isn't preferable in the short term to cooperate with dictators.

SPIEGEL: You were once very skeptical about the prospects for democracy in Arab countries. You even spoke of a "fascist tradition" in the Arab world. Has this changed?

Lévy: I still believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is the last black pearl in the Nazi oyster, a legacy of the Nazis that isn't criticized. Everywhere in the world, one feels a sense of sadness over what the Nazis did to the Jews. Just not in the Arab world, where there is a taboo in this respect and where the past was never been critically addressed. But I also said that there are two sides to the Arab world, the one I have just described and another one, an Islam that is compatible with human rights and wants democracy. This side is now becoming more and more powerful, in places like Libya and Egypt. That's why I believe in the success of this revolution, even though I remain vigilant and sometimes anxious.

SPIEGEL: You say that you have observed a new "political maturity" in Egypt.

Lévy: I've often experienced this after democratic revolutions. Changes happen very quickly. The dictatorship lasts a long time, while freedom comes quickly. It was the case in Portugal in 1974 and in Eastern Europe in 1989. I remember how democratic reflexes took hold there within a week. A thaw of this magnitude doesn't just gently bring words that were long under ice to the surface. It also accelerates the political education of a society.

SPIEGEL: You have close personal and family ties to North Africa. You were born in Algeria to an Algerian father and you own a house in Morocco. What does it mean to you to see the regimes overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt?

Lévy: It didn't come as a surprise to me. For the last 10 years, I have repeatedly said that the struggle of cultures within the Arab-Muslim world is critical for the 21st century, and not the struggle between the Arab-Muslim world and the West. The Arab world is just as open to democracy as Bulgaria and Romania were at the end of communism. I wrote this in my reports from Afghanistan and after having researched the fate of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was killed by al-Qaida in Pakistan.

SPIEGEL: You must be pleased that you were right -- and about your role as a philosopher who influences world history.

Lévy: I am pleased, but I'm also nervous, as I am whenever there is a revolution. Revolutions can produce the best and the worst possible outcomes. What the Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian democrats want from us is that we don't make the same mistakes we made more than 30 years ago, when certain intellectuals uncritically endorsed the Iranian revolution.

SPIEGEL: What has this Arab revolution taught you so far?

Lévy: When the Arab League requested that we intervene in Libya, it was a decisive moment in the history of the modern age. The obligation to intervene in the affairs of other countries became universal as a result. Now no one can accuse the coalition of engaging in dark maneuvers or hidden colonialism. This is a radical shift.

SPIEGEL: The same Arab League is helping the rulers in Bahrain stay in power.

Lévy: Nevertheless, we took a big step on the path to a world in which humanity is united and is no longer divided into different civilizations, with different laws and values.

SPIEGEL: Could there be a lot of naïveté behind your pathos?

Lévy: I'm not naïve. I believe that you must allow yourself to be surprised, and that you have to remain sensitive and alert. I am pragmatic and I stick to the facts. This request by the Arab League, its participation in the Paris summit and the involvement of Arab aircraft in the mission, is an incredible victory.

SPIEGEL: But the Arab leaders' reasons for wanting to get rid of Gadhafi are not as noble as you would like them to be.

Lévy: When I fought to prevent the genocide in Darfur, people listened to those who said that it was an African affair. But it seems to me that those who still say that Libya is an African or an Arab affair have lost the game. This is a step in the direction of a moral conscience for mankind. And a defeat for the assumption that a nation's right of self-determination automatically precludes intervention and ultimately gives those in power the right to do as they please with those they rule.

SPIEGEL: What, in particular, do you remember about the encounter between Sarkozy and the Libyan transitional council at the Elysée Palace?

Lévy: The surprise, the incredulity and the gratefulness of the three Libyans when they understood what Sarkozy had just said to them. The great significance of what he proposed to them. The radicalism of his gesture. That moment of astonishment and of realization -- it was a beautiful moment.

SPIEGEL: You are an independent philosopher, and yet you are very close to power. Isn't that a contradiction?

Lévy: I am not close to power. I am very far from our president. I am an opponent of Sarkozy and his policies. I did not vote for him and I will not vote for him. But it's no secret that we know each other well.

SPIEGEL: You must have something in common politically.

Lévy: Certainly the words I used to tell him about my experiences in Libya reached him. When I returned to Paris, I told him that there would be a massacre if Gadhafi made it to Benghazi, and that the French flag that had been flying above the Corniche since the previous evening would also be soiled with blood in this massacre. He was very moved by these words. There are emotional moments in which even statesmen react in a very normal and human way -- moments when a single word can touch and move them just as its touches and moves every one of us.

SPIEGEL: For decades, you have been traveling back and forth between very comfortable Paris circles and less comfortable crisis regions. What motivates you?

Lévy: This strange thing called fate, which ensures that one person is born into hell and the other into excess. I can hardly stand the contradiction. The thought that the only reason someone is treated like an animal is that he was born in Darfur, this sense of horrible injustice, is a feeling I have had since my youth. I was a student at the time, and left the university to go to Bangladesh. There was a genocide going on there that no one was reporting about. I felt that this commitment was my moral duty.

SPIEGEL: Your parents were very wealthy. Did you perceive this as a burden or an obligation?

Lévy: I believe that being human means having an obligation to other people, and that every human being runs the risk of trampling on someone else. I have a deep belief that your place in the world doesn't really belong to you. Rather, you are merely borrowing it.

SPIEGEL: Where does this conviction come from?

Lévy: It's the moral and spiritual tradition in which I grew up. For me, it's the definition of Judaism. Being Jewish means having more obligations than rights.

SPIEGEL: Can you imagine a world without Bernard-Henri Lévy?

Lévy: Yes, it would all work quite well without me.

SPIEGEL: And France without BHL?

Lévy: That's a different matter. In that case I would have to be invented.

SPIEGEL: Monsieur Lévy, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Georg Diez and Britta Sandberg

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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