In his ubiquitous black suit paired with an always crisp, always pristine white shirt unbuttoned to reveal an alarming swathe of chest, France’s most flamboyant public intellectual scampers up sand dunes in the Libyan desert, ushers uninitiated Libyan seniors through the gilded corridors of the French presidential palace and unabashedly attempts to conduct the forces of history.
In a documentary titled, “Le Serment de Tobrouk” - or “The Oath of Tobruk” – released in France Wednesday, French philosopher-writer Bernard-Henri Levy is the narrator, director, star of a documentary about his role in the 2011 Libyan intervention.
More than a year after UN Security Council Resolution 1973 - which provided the legal basis for the NATO intervention in Libya - was adopted, the documentary charts the unprecedented saga of how one intellectual managed to bulldoze the international agenda on Libya.
The storyline of Levy’s extraordinary role in Libya is by now fairly well-known, certainly across France. In early March 2011, Levy – or “BHL” as he’s called in his native France - traveled from Egypt into eastern Libya. There, he met Libyan rebel leaders and proceeded to convince then President Nicolas Sarkozy to support the rebels diplomatically and militarily.
France's role in the Libya war
For the next few months, the French people witnessed the unusual spectacle of a notoriously self-promoting leftist intellectual joining forces with a notoriously energetic conservative president to wage war in a distant, sandy nation.
There’s a new man in the French presidential palace today, and as Libya prepares to hold its first free general elections this summer, “The Oath of Tobruk” provides an opportunity to revisit an unprecedented chapter in international relations.
It was France’s recognition of the Libyan NTC (National Transitional Council) back in March 2011 that paved the way for the international intervention that helped oust Muammar Gaddafi.
“I think BHL served a very important role for Sarkozy,” says Christopher Dickey, Paris bureau chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast. “I think Sarkozy was looking to intervene in any case. The question was who to talk to? The key role that BHL played was that he found someone to talk to on his first visit to [the eastern Libyan city of] Benghazi.”
An introductory spiel in different countries
A self-styled “militant philosopher,” 63-year-old Levy has never been at a loss to find the right person to talk to. “The Oath of Tobruk” features archival footage of a young BHL meeting the late Afghan resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan in 1998.
Seated with a battery of Afghan elders on a low divan in a carpeted room, Levy attempts to explain his puzzling presence and his even more puzzling mission to a visibly exhausted Massoud.
A FRENCH PHILOSOPHER IN LIBYA
“We are not journalists. We are writers,” he explains as the resistance hero widely known as “The Lion of the Panjshir” looks on, battle-wearied and unimpressed.
Levy goes on to explain that he will try to convince France’s president, Jacques Chirac, about Massoud’s cause. He doesn’t promise anything, he stresses, but he’ll try.
In the end, he did not succeed. Massoud was killed two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks desperately trying to save his patch of the Panjshir from Taliban forces. He never lived to see the military intervention in his broken, benighted homeland.
More than a decade later, Levy finally succeeded in getting the ears of a French president.
In early March 2011, as Gaddafi’s troops were advancing on Benghazi, a similar scene unravels - this time in a different country with a different cast of characters.
In a nondescript room in Benghazi, a faintly amused Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the then yet to be formed NTC, patiently waits as a voice off-screen translates Levy’s introductory spiel into Arabic.
“I am no politician. I am merely a writer. But like you, I believe that it is better to act than to speak…"
Another voice, also off-screen, interjects with an impatient, ‘Do you have a letter from the international community?’
Levy holds up his hand. “Give me five minutes!” he commands.
He gets his five minutes. The rest, as they say, is history.
A pledge in the Libyan desert
There’s little doubt “The Oath of Tobruk” is a mammoth ode to Bernard-Henri Levy, narrated by Bernard-Henri Levy, directed by Bernard-Henri Levy, starring Bernard-Henri Levy.
A controversial figure derided for his vanity, Levy has faced a tough home crowd with the release of his latest film. In an interview with the French TV station France 2 over the weekend, a panel of anchors grilled Levy about his on-screen “omnipresence” in a documentary on Libya.
Levy remonstrated by citing US film-maker Michael Moore - who also features in his own documentaries – only to be dismissed for attempting to compare himself with the likes of Moore and French photojournalist and film-maker Raymond Depardon.
The footage featuring Levy in Libyan towns and cities such as Benghazi, Djebel Nafoussa, Misrata, Sirte and Tripoli was shot by photographer Marc Roussel, who had the presence of mind to switch his camera on video mode during critical moments.
Sitting in a darkened Paris cinema hall before the start of a screening on Wednesday, Nino Ciccarone, a retired school teacher, carefully chose his words when asked about France’s arguably best-known intellectual. “BHL is a well-known philosopher in France who’s very controversial – especially his position in Libya. So, his point of view interests me,” said Ciccarone.
Levy’s point of view is dictated by the international community’s failure to prevent the 1990s massacres in Bosnia. He views his engagement in Libya in the tradition of French Colonel Philippe Leclerc, who fought with the Free French Forces in the 1941 Battle of Kufra.
It was in this isolated oasis in eastern Libya that the Free French Forces made a pledge called the "Oath of Kufra" - swearing not to lay down their arms until France was liberated from the Nazis. The title of Levy’s film pays homage to this pledge, made on Libyan soil six decades ago.
Long on Levy, short on problems
Critics of the documentary have accused Levy of “washing his hands of” some of the more troubling issues confronting the new Libya, an accusation he vehemently denies.
“The Oath of Tobruk" does not shy away from some of these problems, including the rise of Islamist fighters and NTC head Jalil’s controversial October 2011 victory speech asserting that the country had chosen Islamic sharia as the source of legislation.
But the issues are perfunctorily handled in a film that is long on Levy but short on the Libyan people.
The 100-minute documentary has footage of Levy’s June 2011 visit to Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it makes no mention of the gaffe he committed when he assured Netanyahu that the NTC would seek diplomatic ties between Libya and Israel if it came to power.
The NTC responded by promptly issuing a statement denying the reports but the damage was already done in the Arab world, where Levy’s Jewish roots and his pro-Israeli views are a matter of deep suspicion.
Reacting to Jalil’s sharia law declaration, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recounts how she personally told the NTC chief that she hoped Libyan women would be allowed to play a role in the new Libya.
“He smiled,” said Clinton – and with that, the issue of Libyan women’s rights is summarily dropped.
Clinton is among the list of influential players – including Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice - interviewed in the film.
Their accounts of midnight calls to the likes of US President Barack Obama and other world leaders to get UN Security Council Resolution 1973 passed provides an insightful account of how history can sometimes be shaped by a handful of men and women.
As an outsider, Levy finally got a chance to manipulate the forces of history. Although he insists the Libyan intervention was for a greater good, that remains an open question.
In Syria, a bloody uprising has raged for over a year with few international solutions in sight. In the pre-screening darkness of a Paris cinema hall, Ciccarone, the retired schoolteacher, said he believed the Libyan precedent had strengthened Russia’s and China’s resolve to steer clear of an intervention in Syria.
In any case, most people believe Levy will not be able to repeat history in Syria and certainly not under new French President Francois Hollande’s administration.
“I think for the moment, Levy’s fortunes have declined after Sarkozy,” said Dickey. “My sense is that everybody looks at BHL as an independent, somewhat unpredictable actor, and politicians generally don’t like unpredictable actors – especially with sensitive affairs.”
In which case, “The Oath of Tobruk” remains a self-serving but certainly insightful testament to a very unique moment in world history.