The war in Libya about to end, at least the anti-Qaddafi part of it, is one of the most unusual in modern history. It began as a rebellion that the regime appeared it could probably, narrowly, suppress. French author and very public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy visited Benghazi, Libya’s second city and the seat of the rebellion, and telephoned the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, and told him: “French flags are being flown out of the windows of Benghazi, and if France doesn’t assist the rebels, their blood will be on our flag.” This was somewhat tortuous reasoning, as if all a dissident group in one country needed to do to gain the support of another (relatively powerful) country was to show some enthusiasm for it.
But it was more complicated than that, in a manner only the French (and perhaps, in their more inspired moments, the Italians) can manage. M. Sarkozy’s wife, Carla Bruni, had a child, who is now the stepson of the president, with Lévy’s son-in-law, Raphaël Enthoven. Thus, Lévy was entreating the stepfather of his grandson for assistance to the Libyan rebels. There is no reason to believe that this tenuous relationship affected the president’s decision, and they had known each other for many years, but it does raise the call from Lévy in Benghazi from the esoteric to the picaresque. Lévy claims that the consequences have made him, in a Michelle Obama moment, proud of his country for the first time.
France has no historic concern with Libya. However, France does have a Muslim problem. Having occupied Algeria in 1830, and treated it legally as a province of France and not a colony, France — when it vacated Algeria in 1962 after a fierce and bloody war of independence — had to receive not only the one million Europeans, in the Algerian population of nine million, who fled the vengeance of the rebels, but also more than a million Arabs who had been loyal to France. Almost 50 years later, the Muslim (mainly Arab) population of France has grown to seven million in a population of 60 million.
Many of them can be presumed to be enthusiastic French citizens, but many are afflicted by the social disease of millions of other Muslims across Europe, and are very antagonistic to the nation and culture that is their host. The backlash against Muslim violence and other provocations has become a powerful issue in France, and, at the time of Lévy’s call from Benghazi, for the first time in the Fifth Republic (founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, and the most successful governmental system France has ever had), a racially exclusivist and right-wing populist party (the National Front) was running almost even in the polls with the Gaullists, who have won eight of this Republic’s ten presidential elections, and the Socialists, who won the other two elections.
This made the appeal from Benghazi especially timely and Sarkozy rose admirably to the cause of human and minority rights in Libya and the concept of Franco-Libyan solidarity. He recruited the British in agreement, and successfully demanded NATO action against Libya’s mad and despotic leader, the quasi-transvestite pseudo-colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who has been tyrannizing and despoiling Libya since 1969. France and Britain, as well as some other NATO and non-NATO countries, began air support for the Libyan rebels. President Obama solemnly opined that Qaddafi had no moral credibility, and “must go.” However, the president was not prepared to counsel any American action to achieve this consummation.
There then began what soon became a crescendo of cautionary remarks from instant North African experts in the Congress and the foreign-policy establishment, and most of the motley congeries of Republican presidential candidates, that Libya was complicated, that there are “41 tribes” there, that not much was known about the rebel leadership, that Qaddafi, though “unacceptable,” might be the preferable devil-you-know, and so forth. The French and British weren’t having any of this, and continued their air attacks, and many other countries, including a number of Arab countries, joined in. Unfortunately, the French and British have not only sustained their populations against a collapsed birthrate by replacing the unborn with largely unassimilable Muslim immigrants; they have also stripped their defense capabilities to transform their social safety networks into hammocks. They did this in pursuit of votes, and have been rewarded with mindless disturbances, such as the recent preposterous riots in London (and elsewhere in the U.K.) and the intermittent torching of hundreds of automobiles per night in North Paris.
More providently, President Obama commendably joined the NATO effort and armed it properly, supplying hundreds of missiles and rockets to the British and French and leading the alliance. The war was conducted in the dubious tradition established by NATO in the war against Serbia over Kosovo — no boots on the ground, and aircraft rarely within shooting distance of opposition anti-aircraft missiles — but the pinpoint accuracy of American air ordnance allowed accurate fire against Libyan targets, which are confined to relatively few sites on a ribbon along the Mediterranean shore. It was yet another war worth killing for, but not worth dying for. This is an understandable concept for a conflict intervened in originally chiefly to shake up the polls in favor of the French governing party eight months before an election. (The American campaign is well under way for an election over 14 months off.) It is nice work if you can do it, but the implicit moral ambiguity in such a morbid fear of a two-sided war could be disquieting.
What is more disturbing are official and Republican noises in Washington and such frequent amen corners of sophistical pusillanimity as the Council on Foreign Relations, where there has been an unbecoming ambivalence about a successful outcome of the Libyan intervention. After its reluctant start, and invaluable participation, it is shocking that most senior people in both parties are so ambivalent about whether they really wanted our side to win. Qaddafi was responsible for the Lockerbie Pan Am airliner bombing that killed 273 innocent people in 1986, and many other atrocities. He is wicked and deranged and it is shaming that there is any lack of rejoicing in and around the United States government about his political demise.
There had been some fatuous intercessions from the State Department in the middle of this war about granting Qaddafi asylum within Libya after his retirement. This in the part of the world where the favored method of evicting a deposed leader is to drag his corpse along the streets of the capital for a while before stringing it up for public desecration (Nuri as-Said in Iraq and Najibullah in Afghanistan), or at least to wheel the retired chief of state on a stretcher into a trumped-up trial, as happened to America’s reliable ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, at the age of 82, a few weeks ago. The administration was a good deal more enthused about disposing of Mubarak than Qaddafi. At least the French and British, militarily impoverished though they have become, recognized the moral preferability of the Libyan rebels.
There appears to be a schizophrenic division in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, between those still wanly celebrating the fraud of the Arab Spring, like people on the line between being intoxicated and being hung-over, and those so afraid of getting into another Near East war even before Iraq has been vacated that they fail to recognize the U.S. national interest. Almost anything is preferable to Qaddafi and the Assads (Syria), especially if the U.S. helps to install their successors. The country harasses its allies, imperfect though they may be, and mollycoddles its enemies. The fall of Qaddafi should embolden Washington to assist the removal of Assad, which would be a severe setback to Iran. Someone prominent in the country’s foreign-policy leadership should remember FDR’s concept, in reference to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, of “our son-of-a-bitch.”
For good measure, in addition to coming to the rescue of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s mission to Benghazi, the U.S. has done France another favor. The almost criminal irresponsibility of U.S. prosecutors in New York may bring French affairs full circle and make Dominique Strauss-Kahn a prime candidate for the 2012 French presidential election. He is infinitely preferable to President Sarkozy’s other current rivals, and anyone who exposes the habitual abuses of the American prosecutocracy performs a great and brave service to this country, and should be honored in his own.
NOTE: Thanks to readers Edward Finglas and my eminent friend Leonard Lauder for pointing out to me that “The public be damned!” was a reflection, not of J. P. Morgan, as I wrote last week, but of William Henry Vanderbilt. I apologize for the error.