French media celebrity (and one time philosopher) Bernard-Henri Lévy has been called many things over the years by his equally large and outspoken armies of detractors and supporters. “Curveball”, however, was never among them. It might be time to consider adding that name to the list. Because Lévy was essential to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to intervene in Libya. Meanwhile, the man known as “BHL” is now lobbying hard for more muscular NATO strikes on behalf of the nation’s flagging anti-Gaddafi opposition, which he also claims is in far better fighting form than people imagine. Given such activism in a situation other observers describe in far darker terms, it seems fair to ask whether Lévy isn’t assuming a role in Libya similar to the one the Iraqi informer code-named “Curveball” played in telling Bush administration officials whatever they needed to justify their war on Saddam Hussein.
Though initially celebrated as man of big ideas and philosophical vision, Lévy has over the past two spent more time simply self-aggrandizing (a “moi, je” promotion he’s turned into a full time job). Lévy has usually done that with punditry. But on occasion BHL has plucked up—with great theatrics–causes he then wraps himself within as the central actor in what becomes an almost saintly effort to avoid calamity. His most famous and effective foray in this regard was his direct involvement in the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s. His high-profile work to publicize and denounce the atrocities being inflicted on Bosnia’s Muslims by Bosnian-Serbs was important in shaming the international community into action.
Now in the context of the Libyan intervention, Lévy has boasted about his role in convincing Sarkozy to acknowledge the Libyan opposition leadership as the true representatives of their nation—the first step in getting the French President to mount his successful push to rally reticent fellow leaders to launch air strikes against Gaddafi forces to prevent a looming massacre. The tick-tock of Lévy’s campaign (and a glimpse of the outsized ego that has made the 62 year-old an object of mockery and derision) was detailed recently in a very good piece by the New York Times.
Since that story was published, however, Lévy has resumed his de facto, self-appointed title of France’s special envoy to Libya, where—among other things—he informed the world that France has military officers assigned to rebel command headquarters in Benghazi (a detail Paris hadn’t actually wanted known). Based on his own access to the opposition command unit, meanwhile, Lévy has also begun lamenting the increasing slowness and passivity of NATO air strikes against Gaddafi forces—or its unwillingness, he notes in couched language, to assist rebel troops to advance. Lévy ferociously (yet unconvincingly) insists that the international intervention in Libya should never over-step its UN mandate of protecting civilians (or else risk becoming an active participant in the war, and thereby assume the criminal responsibilities Lévy assigns to international troops in Iraq). Yet he calls for Gaddafi’s military defeat and ouster in much the same way Western capitals do—a result that, given the Libyan leader’s resistance, isn’t going to happen any time soon without outside forces taking a direct, active role in aiding the rebels to victory.
For now, Lévy is careful about what form that should assume, and suggests it should mostly be indirect assistance to rebel troops he says are rapidly turning into a respectable army. In a recent editorial in Le Monde , BHL acknowledged the rebels forces began as an under-trained, rag-tag scrum of inexperienced volunteers. But he also reported recent scenes of swiftly-improving instruction, savvy leadership, the embrace of shrewd strategic thinking and planning, and a heroic determination and ingenuity to get laughably poor weaponry to function. All these plucky rebels need to sound the death knell of Gaddafi’s regime, he maintained, are arms and instruction from the international community, and faster, aggressive, and more ambitious air strikes by NATO. In Benghazi, Lévy writes, he sees “reasons to hope” for rebel forces to step up and eventually defeat Gaddafi–albeit with outside help.
Compare that to the analysis of the same rebel condition in yesterday’s New York Times , which speaks of a divided military command, impotent political opposition, and forces that have some doubting whether they’ll ever be able to beat Gaddafi with any level of outside help.
The Western powers have been looking to the rebel fighters to break the logjam, hoping they can be built into an effective fighting force. But the continuing disorganization and infighting within the rebel leadership is an obstacle; even countries that have expressed support for the rebel cause are balking at arming them, at least in part out of concern over the disarray.
Yet, in his oped, Lévy writes: “More than ever, everything indicates that free Libya, with its allies, can beat the tyrant.” Given the contrasting accounts coming elsewhere in Libya—and views of Western military brass that their involvement has gone as far as it can—the kind of escalation-seeking statements Lévy is making sound a tad like the promises from the Iraqi exiles who presented fabricated WMD evidence by “Curveball” to convince U.S. officials that the war against Saddam was justified, would be over quickly, and end with American forces being showered by flowers from Iraqi citizens. Instead, the Bush administration actively gobbled the bait to go fight someone else’s war.
“I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime,” “Curveball” told The Guardian on Feb. 15. “”Believe me, there was no other way to bring about freedom to Iraq. There were no other possibilities.”
There is no reason or evidence to suspect Lévy is giving anything less than his own, sincere account of what he has seen, and is expressing his hopes of Libya ridding itself of Gaddafi once and for all. But Lévy isn’t a military expert or strategist, so his criticisms and scolding of NATO only go so far. Meanwhile, his unbending embrace and support of a Libyan opposition leadership whose make-up and functioning raise some real concerns raise some questions about his own judgment. Lévy’s personal involvement in the conflict—and super-sized ego attendant to everything he does–begs additional questions about whether he isn’t putting–intentionally or not–his own spin on the rebels’ predicament to influence how Sarkozy, NATO, and the international community react to them. It’s worth thinking about, especially since any decent pitcher knows spin is what produces a good curveball.