Daniel W. Drezner

French public intellectuals pushed for Libya. Does that matter?

French public intellectuals pushed for Libya.  Does that matter?

As the fallout from Dominique Strauss-Kahn and The Chambermaid’s Tale continues, the guy from the Dos Equis commercials French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy is taking quite a beating inside the United States.  Lévy — or BHL for those in the know — is a longtime friend of Strauss-Kahn — or DSK for, well, you get the idea.  After DSK’s arrest, BHL penned the following in the Daily Beast:

I do not know what actually happened Saturday, the day before yesterday, in the room of the now famous Hotel Sofitel in New York.

I do not know—no one knows, because there have been no leaks regarding the declarations of the man in question—if Dominique Strauss-Kahn was guilty of the acts he is accused of committing there, or if, at the time, as was stated, he was having lunch with his daughter [we actually know that, given the timeline, DSK’s lunch with his daughter is not an alibi, as even his defenders acknowlege –DWD].

I do not know—but, on the other hand, it would be nice to know, and without delay—how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York’s grand hotels of sending a “cleaning brigade” of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet….

And what I know even more is that the Strauss-Kahn I know, who has been my friend for 20 years and who will remain my friend, bears no resemblance to this monster, this caveman, this insatiable and malevolent beast now being described nearly everywhere. Charming, seductive, yes, certainly; a friend to women and, first of all, to his own woman, naturally, but this brutal and violent individual, this wild animal, this primate, obviously no, it’s absurd.

This morning, I hold it against the American judge who, by delivering him to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other….

I hold it against all those who complacently accept the account of this other young woman, this one French, who pretends to have been the victim of the same kind of attempted rape, who has shut up for eight years but, sensing the golden opportunity, whips out her old dossier and comes to flog it on television.

I do not know the extent to which BHL fact-checked his column — for example, the French woman he accuses of being opportunistic now actually went public in 2007 only to have herself censored on French television. 

I do not know the extent to which BHL is aware that DSK’s other sexual indiscretions appear to have a greater element of coercion than had been previously realized. 

I do not know why BHL’s understanding of "cleaning brigades" is somewhat at odds with the reality of how American hotels actually function. 

I do know that in the United States, BHL’s reputation has fallen almost as fast as Ben Stein‘s. 

So, this raises an exceptionally uncomfortable question for some foreign policy commentators.  BHL might look like a horse’s ass right now, but six or seven weeks ago, he was playing a very different role.  According to BHL himself multiple press reports, Bernard-Henri Lévy was the interlocutor between Libya’s rebels and the rest of the world.  He therefore played a crucial role in getting French President Nicolas Sarkozy — and therefore, the West more generally — to intervene in Libya.  This caused some consternation at the time.  It would obviously set off even louder alarm bells now. 

Given this role, Ben Smith tweets a very valid question:  "So if the order of DSK-gate and Libya are reversed… do we go into Libya?"

This touches on some very interesting questions about temporality, causation, correlation and counterfactuals.  What are the necessary or sufficient conditions for a policy outcome to occur?  Do events have to happen in a particular sequence to reach a particular outcome? Was BHL either a necessary or sufficient condiition for the UN/NATO action in Libya? 

My answer would be that Bernard-Henri Lévy’s intellectual reputation was neither necessary nor sufficient for Operation Odyssey Dawn to take place.  Consider the following: 

1)  French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been more circumspect than BHL in commenting on DSK, reflecting the general muteness of the French political class on the topic.  It seems unlikely that BHL’s ardent advocacy would have caused Sarkozy to listen to him any less on Libya.

2)  One of the key aspects of the Libya decision was the compressed time frame in which it had to be made.  Qaddafi’s forces seemed on the verge of retaking the country within a week.  Debating whether BHL was an honest broker or not seemed pretty peripheral to the real-time changes on the ground in Libya.  It’s worth remembering that the Arab League and the UN Security Council acted very quickly by International Organization Standard Time, and I certainly don’t think BHL had much of a role to play.  On the scale of things, one would have expected the "flickers" of Al Qaeda presence among the Libyan rebels to have acted as a bigger brake, and yet that fact did not derail the policy either. 

3)  Without in any way diminishing the allegatioons and official charges against DSK, there is a difference between  the (mostly) venal sins of BHL  and the French political class, and the (mostly) mortal sins of Qaddafi and his family  If the Libya decision was happening right now, my hunch is that it would drown out much of the Franco-American contretemps over American puritanism French misogyny one person’s failings. 

What do you think?