Bernard Henri-Lévy, famous for wearing crisp white shirts open to the sternum, is a penseur mondain, a celebrity intellectual who serves as the ambassador of Left Bank literary cool. BHL, as he is known, is also a self-mandated foreign policy broker, who in 2011 almost single-handedly coaxed France, and later Britain and the United States, to intervene in the Libyan civil war, and an ardent defender of the Kurds. This week Lévy is in the United States to present a retrospective of four documentary films he made about the conflicts he covered and the causes he championed. Air Mail had a few questions for the man who says he models himself on André Malraux and T. E. Lawrence.
Alessandra Stanley: You have come to New York and Los Angeles to share your films about Iraq, Libya, Kurdistan, and Bosnia, and, given what’s happening in the Middle East, your timing couldn’t be more à propos. So first off: what do you think about the assassination of General Soleimani, and how should the International Community respond?
Bernard-Henri Lévy: The problem with Trump is not this particular action or that one. It is his desperate lack of strategy. He did not know, when he became president, who Soleimani was. Soleimani was probably the man whom his administration used as a channel, till the last minute, in order to keep a line open with Iran. Soleimani was the man who was on the battlefield in Kirkuk, commanding a column of Abrams tanks, when Trump decided to offer him and Iran, on a silver plate, a part of the Kurdish territory. Honestly, I don’t understand. It makes absolutely no sense. And a senseless strategy is, as you know from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, one of the biggest faults you can commit in geopolitics.
A.S.: Your film about the Libyan uprising there was so hopeful. Almost ten years later, Libya is a failed state stuck in a civil war that is a proxy for multiple oddly-aligned rival powers. And Turkey is about to send in troops. Did the West destroy Syria and Libya in order to save them?
B.H.L: The West did not destroy Libya! Gaddafi did it, during four interminable decades. And what has remained of it tends to be destroyed, yes, by furious militias. As for Syria, how can you say that we, again, “destroyed” it? We did not even move a single finger. We left Bashar al-Assad absolutely free to kill his own people as much as he wanted and in the way he decided. If we committed a crime, it was the opposite—it was to say to his executioners, “bon appétit, Messieurs!”
A.S.: You have written eloquently about decline and defeatism in the West (you described France as “sick of herself”). What do you see happening to Western civilization in the next five to ten years?
B.H.L.: If we continue leaving Erdogan free to act, if we continue to include him, against all reason, in our system of defense—NATO—if we don’t stop transforming the warmonger Putin into a peacemaker, if we don’t understand that the problem with Iran is their will to make the Persian Empire great again, if we reduce to a tariff war the competition for civilization in which the China of Xi is running, we will become a great museum of our past splendor. No, more than that: a beautiful museum that these autocrats will come and visit, from time to time, as an homage paid by vice to virtue…
A.S.: As we see in your film about Libya, no one on the literary scene is as engagé in world affairs as you are—and you have written about role models like Polybius, Malraux, Hemingway, T. E. Lawrence. But then there is Graham Greene’s cautionary tale about democratic idealism-gone-wrong in The Quiet American. What’s the difference between T. E. Lawrence and Alden Pyle, or BHL and Alden Pyle?
B.H.L.: There are many differences. First, as said in the song of Nicolas Ker that ends Peshmerga, “I forgot to die and, in spite of these four movies, I am still here!” But, more important, I am a free spirit. I am free of my movements. I have my own agenda. No one other than myself mandates me. And I act, in other words, as a citizen of the world… Very important, this idea of a self-mandate! It’s important for me—philosophically important—to decide that, at this moment, or that one, I will act as if the center of the world was in Kirkuk, or as if the world capital of the misery was the Middle Belt of Nigeria!
If we committed a crime, it was to say to Gaddafi’s executioners, “bon appétit, Messieurs!”
A.S.: You were very critical of Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds. Is that the worst mistake of his presidency? Is there anything he has done (wittingly or unwittingly) that you admire?
B.H.L.: It is the worst mistake, yes. It’s the first and only time in American history when you’ve abandoned an ally without even starting or feigning to fight. This only happens in literature. The only actual example I can remember is the abandonment of Hamilcar’s mercenaries in Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô. But in the real world? As my friend Tom Kaplan, chairman of Justice For Kurds, once said: “In all wars, we have blood on our hands; but it is the blood of our enemies; here, with the Kurds, it is, for the first time, the blood of our best friends and allies.”
The problem with Trump is not this particular action or that one. It is his desperate lack of strategy.
A.S.: You defended Macron’s pension reforms in Le Point. From here, Macron looks like the one globally-minded centrist still standing in a crowd of xenophobic populists. So why do so many French people dislike and disdain him?
B.H.L.: Because a large part of France is in this xenophobic and populist mood! But there’s one thing I can tell you. If you look at the map of the world from the point of view, for example, of Irbil, you can’t help thinking, “Thank God Macron exists!”
A.S.: You and Michel Houellebecq had an amusing epistolary exchange about feeling irrelevant. Neither of you are, but do less famous white male writers have a point when they complain of being ignored and dismissed in this new era of female empowerment and multiculturalism?
B.H.L.: I don’t think so. I have always favored multiculturalism. And same with female empowerment. One of the things I find most admirable in Kurdistan is the role of the women. They fight. They form some of the best Kurdish battalions. They terrorize ISIS, or the proxies of Erdogan and Khamenei, who believe that being killed by a woman is shame added to death. They are brave. Efficient. And equals.
A.S.: Many of my male contemporaries in the U.S. are worried they will someday get into trouble over past behavior with women. You’ve had a more swashbuckling love life than most: do you worry something from your past will come up to bite you?
A.S.: Vanessa Springora’s memoir Le Consentment, about Gabriel Matzneff having sex with her when she was 14, has unleashed a huge backlash against the French intellectual elite who condoned Matzneff as an enfant terrible; now, he is labeled a child molester. Social mores were obviously different back then. Do you think this new sea change is healthy?
B.H.L.: Of course, the change is healthy. How could it not be?
A.S.: Okay, one last thing: in Kurdistan and in Iraq, you traveled with rebels, scrambled into jeeps and freighters, ran up and down the dunes at the front lines—always dressed in your signature black suit, white shirt, and dress shoes. Why? Wouldn’t it have been easier to cover combat in hiking boots and jeans?
B.H.L.: No. Easier as it is. And, more important: it is a way (one of the ways!) to express respect. I would certainly not have a special suit which I would never use except when I find myself in such circumstances! I would hate having a “tenue de circonstance” (dress code) that is pulled out of the cupboard when I have to go and bear witness to suffering and battle. I am as I am. They accept me because I am me. It would be disrespectful to act in a different way, to disguise myself.