The crisis in Libya deepens by the day while the NATO-led military campaign against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces fails to break the deadlock. In an article first published in this site's French pages following the start of the imposition of the air exclsuion zone, Mediapart Editor-in-Chief Edwy Plenel argues here why military intervention was misconceived from the start, a dupery led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy primarily for internal political considerations.
As soon as diplomacy has given way to war, populations are called upon to choose if they are for or against and without the time to think about or debate the issue. This limited choice acts as an acid test for journalism's critical function - a function incompatible with unreflective thinking. The Libyan affair is another demonstration of how a just international cause was distorted by the political calculations of the French administration. The ability to criticize is not worth much if it stops short of criticising the use of arms. As for the job of informing, it cannot be done in uniform.
Is it impossible to wish for the rapid fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi while not falling dupe to an operation of diversion mounted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy? Can we not hope for international mobilisation at the side of the Arab revolutions now underway without blindly approving when that translates into direct military intervention by the Western powers, who, only yesterday, supported and armed the dictators whose regimes are today shaken by their peoples?
"The first casualty of war is truth." This postulate, the departure point for the 1994 documentary byMarcel Ophuls, The Troubles We've Seen: A History of Journalism in Wartime, based on Yugoslavia, comes to mind these days when listening to or reading the deluge of uniformly laudatory comments on France's engagement against the Libyan regime.
But truth is not a battle of good against evil, of day against night, of light versus darkness, as if there were a binary choice or a choice between two belligerent options. The truth, in its many manifestations, is instead facts versus beliefs, precision versus confusion, remembering rather than forgetting: in short, information versus propaganda, including that coming from the supposed or self-proclaimed camp of right and justice.
Since the first day of his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy has sought his war. Adopting Napoleon Bonaparte's strategy, he wished for that external event that would silence internal opposition - an event so potent that it would paralyse and numb and whose stunning technical effects would raise a cry for mobilization. He first looked for it in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008, promoted, as he put it, to the field of battle between ancestral civilizations and "barbarity". France's commitment there continues despite the blatant failure of this Western war in Central Asia, a failure that may explain why the French President is relatively silent about it.
He then set his sights on Georgia, in 2008, standing up to Russia with personal theatrics designed for internal consumption during France's presidency of the European Union. To the meagre results on the ground, one must add the long-term grid-lock of European diplomacy and solidarity, for which we are still paying the price today.
In 2011, Nicolas Sarkozy finally found a war to lead. A war he promoted, defended and obtained. Seizing the ball thrown from Benghazi by French essayist and thinker, Bernard-Henri Lévy1, he is indisputably the one to have initiated this war. The United Nations' green light was obtained through a joint Franco-British resolution defended before the Security Council by French Minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppé and adopted with 10 votes in favour and 5 abstentions. Sarkozy's visit to a military base in Corsica on Tuesday, March 22nd, during the French parliamentary debate, in other words after the fact, once everything was settled, demonstrates how things are done. The president plays the great warrior while others play at petty politics. In republics through plebiscite, inspired by Julius Cesar and as implemented during France's First (1804-1814) and Second (1852-1870) Napoleonic Empires, a leader emerges - often to the sound of the cannon - but always by debasing democracy.
Promoting the leader rather than the ruling majority through the president-heavy diet with which our public, political and media life is over-fed does the rest. This takes the form of excessively laudatory editorials; tears of patriotic joy at seeing France suddenly become the centre of the world once again; and an opposition caught in the toils of state solidarity and of ideological conformity. This is an opportunity, as if it were necessary, to verify the vital need for a new independent press, far from the industrial press and from government journalism. Mediapart was practically the only media, under editor François Bonnet's by-line, to formulate doubts and to pose questions the day after UN resolution 1973 was adopted by the Security Council.
More than ever, these doubts and these questions are news worthy. Amnesia or loss of all critical sense notwithstanding, the just support for the cause of the Libyan people cannot prevent us from underlining the political calculations of which it is today a tool in France - and beyond. Because Nicolas Sarkozy is at the head of this belligerent operation, his inconsistencies and blindness can only distort and corrupt this tardy international attempt to help the Libyan people.
1: In early March, Bernard-Henri Lévy, then in the Libyan insurgents' stronghold of Benghazi, launched an appeal for international aid to the rebels.
A strong brew of French corruption
It will be argued, of course, that the justified end - destroying a dictator, coming to the aid of popular insurrections or protecting civilian populations - relativizes the means. But this is the usual window-dressing for a war invented for the purpose of forgetting past collusion and so that domination will persevere. Create a diversion in internal politics and make a show of force outside. This sums up the comparison in the British press with Margaret Thatcher's Falkland's War, of which one happy consequence was to precipitate the fall of the Argentine military dictatorship - in the same way as one can hope that the current military intervention will accelerate the demise of the Gaddafi regime.
Wishing for these beneficial effects doesn't stop one from remaining lucid with eyes open. If the lot of the Libyan people were truly the primary concern of the French administration, we would probably have noticed it sooner. In truth, Nicolas Sarkozy's France is in the worst position to pretend to bring liberty to Arab populations because it is too compromised with the authoritarian or dictatorial regimes being overthrown today. Since 2007, collusion was the rule, including in ways well beyond the relations ordinarily imposed by diplomatic realpolitik.
There are coincidences that, far from being anecdotal, summarize habits. The French administration, which boasted of having launched a Union for the Mediterranean, had taken its ease in these countries and transformed them into France's playground - resort destinations despite the oppression of their peoples and the corruption of their elites. It is for this reason that, for the 2010 end-of-year holidays, the French President was in residence in the Morocco of a divine right monarch while his Minister of Foreign Affairs was on holiday in the Tunisia of the Ben Ali clan, his special advisor was in the Libya of Colonel Gaddafi and his Prime Minister visiting Egypt at the expense of President Hosni Mubarak.
At the crossroads between public policy and private collusion the Tunisian episode was so damning that it sparked a cabinet crisis in France, leading to the resignation of foreign affairs minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. She had publically proposed French aid policing the demonstrators several days before the regime fell. But that was just the tip of the iceberg of the corruption accepted or encouraged under the double imperative of commercial interest and ideological short-sightedness. The Islamist bogeyman served as an alibi to affairs concluded in greedy secrecy with oligarchic dictatorswho transformed their countries' riches into their family's personal wealth.
Nothing proves that this behaviour has disappeared with the overthrown Tunisian and Egyptian regimes. Perhaps not enough attention was paid to the fact that the only high-level French official visit to the Arab world since the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak, was made, by the Prime Minister, to Saudi Arabia, the very spot where the Tunisian dictator has sought refuge.
On February 12th and 13th, in the midst of the Arab democratic turmoil, Prime Minister François Fillon, went off to comfort the most unenlightened regime of the region. A regime that imposes Islamic law in daily life and which discriminates not only against non-Muslims but also against Shias, a sect that shares Islam with the Sunnis. Worse, the trip was made during joint manoeuvres of the French and Saudi armies, an illustration of the military and industrial twin interests which dominate French foreign policy in these regions.
Against this yardstick, the Libyan case most resembles a caricature. A recently published book by French journalist Jean Guisnel, Armes de corruption massive ('Arms of massive corruption'), is complete on the subject and, as such, damning. As The Guardian reported, France holds, with Italy, the record for arms sales to the Gaddafi regime since 2007. The grand show of reconciliation both in Tripoli and in Paris with the Libyan dictator, rather than being an initiative of professional diplomats, directly implicated the French presidency and its networks and interests.
This palinode was a strong brew of French corruption including: private management of foreign policy with the unthinkable duo of Claude Guéant and Cecilia Sarkozy1; placing of weapons sales middlemen such as Ziad Takieddine, the key player in the earlier Karachi corruption scandal at the heart of power; arms dealers including Serge Dassault and Arnaud Lagardère, through his EADS holdings, at the heart of our media network; politicians leading careers as professional matchmakers - Patrick Ollier, husband of the foreign minister forced to resign and chair of the National Assembly's Franco-Libyan Friendship Committee, who remains Minister of Parliamentary Relations comes to mind.
Seen from France, the Libyan Affair is a whitewashing and memory-cleansing operation to which we must respond with a determined remembrance of things past. We don't see what miracle of responsibility could have suddenly occurred in a presidency that, only a few months ago, was continuing negotiations with the Libyan dictatorship to export French civilian nuclear technology. These discussions, begun in 2007 and materialised by a Franco-Libyan protocol signed, for France, by then-foreign Click here for more.
Sarkozy minister: it's 'a crusade'
That he has been abandoned by his closest or most compromised friends is a bad omen for Colonel Gaddafi. It is also, naturally, a good one for the Libyan people - although they may not find sincere friendship in Gaddafi's new enemies.
The most obvious evidence that no ethical conviction drives Nicolas Sarkozy on the issue of Libya is found in the fact that he now defends the exact opposite of what he stood for just a short time ago. Following a silence as contemptuous as it was embarrassing, his first reaction to the popular uprisings that led to the fall of his friends Ben Ali and Mubarak, pillars of his Union for the Mediterranean, was worry and fear. Worry about unpredictable events and one which he transformed into fear in his public declarations for home consumption. Speaking at the time of his government reshuffle on February 27th, he seized the opportunity to brandish the threat of uncontrollable invasions of migrants from the countries in turmoil, and the danger that the fallen dictators could be replaced by even more sinister regimes.
The usual scapegoats were designated in a chorus of comments by both his ruling UMP party and his close entourage, notably newly-appointed interior minister Claude Guéant; Islam and its place in France became a subject that required national debate, with Muslims referred to as a separate category to the rest of the French population, and claims that immigrant numbers are so vast that the French supposedly no longer feel as though they are in France. While this discourse continues uninterrupted by the intervention in Libya, how can a government pretend to sincerely want to bring liberty through war to a people whose culture, beliefs and itinerary it despises and stigmatizes?
Far from demonstrating an opening towards the world and others, the Libyan cause has become hostage to French regression and retreat. The most explicit example of this came from Claude Guéant, the longest-serving close collaborator of the president. Following the first round of the two-round local elections in France in March 2 and which saw a historic low score for the conservative right, the interior minister continued with his campaign of xenophobia that has no shyness in copying the cries of the far-right. "An excess of immigration troubles the French," he declared, before applauding his mentor Sarkozy for the military engagement over Libya in these loaded words: "The president has taken the lead of the crusade".
So, there we have it. A crusade. The unconscious colonial reference, one that establishes a hierarchy between civilizations and cultures, religions and peoples, remains at the core of the French presidency's political approach. The economist and essayist Alain Minc, an informal advisor to Nicolas Sarkozy, compared the current Franco-British alliance in Libya to that of the two countries' joint Suez Canal expedition in 1956, the very symbol of neo-colonialism in face of the emergence of Arab nationalism. So, according to Minc, the Libya campaign is a new Suez, although he nuances the comparison thus: "In 1956, [it was] to defend their interests. There [Libya], it is to defend principles." But already in 1956, as today, principles served as an alibi for interests.
Some might object that the fundamental difference is that the intervention in Libya is within the framework of a United Nations resolution, passed without veto in the Security Council. The Libyan exception - a grotesque dictatorship imposed 42 years ago on an oil-rich but sparsely-populated country of six million inhabitants - no doubt explains the majority vote reached. For, before long, the coalition was soon shaken by silence, contradictions and ambiguity. The prudence and precautions shown by the US underlined the questions raised by German, Indian and Brazilian diplomats at the UN (all three of whom abstained during the resolution vote despite having no tenderness towards the Tripoli regime) concerning the coherence and effectiveness of the proposed military intervention.
Indeed, there was no shortage of questions; what would be its unified command structure, its final military aim? How could the dictator be toppled without the use of ground troops? How could collateral damage, of which the first victims are the very civilians supposedly protected by the action, be prevented? How could an eventual handover of command to NATO - a move that stamps the Western character of the action - be avoided? Why not directly arm the insurgents in the east of the country?
Many of these questions remain today about a campaign that was decided both too late and too quickly. Too late, because it came after the launch of Colonel Gaddafi's increasingly successful counter-offensive against the rebels, and too quickly because it was conceived as a headline-grabbing media coup, without any precise analysis of the true situation.
Why not intervene in Bahrain?
Lying at the origins of this war, driven by Nicolas Sarkozy solely for internal political reasons, is indeed a media coup. It is that of the French columnist, essayist and thinker Bernard-Henri Lévy who, as previously mentioned, implored intervention in his articles from Benghazi (page one of this article). As is his habit, and not without a certain coherence, he rallied behind him with panache the French equivalent of the American neo-conservatives. On the left of the right, and on the right of the left, according to their political paths, they recycle, in these uncertain times, the old logic of a West sure of its actions, of its power and its values, and above all the values of its power. They run after a lost glory while the world crumbles beneath their feet, inventing new relationships, new liberties and new equalities.
An open-letter appeal in favour of the intervention in Libya published March 16th in French daily Le Monde, (upon whose supervisory board sits Bernard-Henri Lévy), was signed by several personalities who have made indignation - in all its convoluted forms - their hallmark.
Taking just three examples: there was Bernard Kouchner, a former leading Socialist Party figure who jumped ship to become foreign affairs minister under Nicolas Sarkozy. He is the very symbol, among the signatories of the March appeal, of those who, like himself, previously supported the US invasion of Irak, founded upon lies and which violated international law.
Next is the thinker André Glucksmann, who recently distinguished himself with a comment piece in Le Monde that left the rights of Palestinians, still denied despite so many other UN resolutions, by the roadside of history. Finally, there was also Antoine Sfeir, journalist and teacher, specialist in Middle East affairs, who himself represents those who once supported in a largely interested manner the former Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, and who now attempt to blast away the traces in a storm of warrior-like zeal for liberty in Libya.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The war proclaimed in Paris is a new episode in a key battle to decided future international relations. That there are sometimes inevitable or necessary wars, that they require an alliance of interests and a coalition of ideas between nations, is obvious, if always pitiful. But are there also, as we are told again today, wars that are ‘just', are ‘of principle' or ‘lawful'?
Whatever the absolute cause cited - religion or justice, faith or law - it is always in order to elevate war into an Absolute. The process by which upholding law automatically provides legitimacy for war is akin to a conjuring trick in as much as it ignores the necessary questions that are; who makes the law, who expresses the law and who is the judge?
Everyone knows that, concerning international relations, the UN Security Council majority votes give expression to a balance of power rather than to any firmly held beliefs. Those who promoted the Libyan campaign have a partial agenda. If the proclaimed objective is to protect civilian populations from the repression unleashed upon them by their own government, what should also be done - to stick to the Arab world - in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, where similarly repressive events are taking place? Should the UN set in train military intervention as often as there are insurrections, repression and civil wars? Why not have asked it to intervene when, late 2008 and early 2009, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip, with a disproportionate scale of weaponry that would take a heavy toll of the Palestinian civilian population?
It is clear that, confronted by the complexity of the world, the ideological reasoning behind France's neo-cons does not resist the test of reality. By choosing between allies and enemies, by designating powers authorized to violate international law and those states labeled rogue because they are weak, the only coherence at heart is one of interests, not principles. At the very moment that air strikes were launched against Libya, there was increased repression in the Arab peninsular states. In particular it targeted Shiite minorities, the subject of a discrimination that highlights a refusal of pluralism on the part of oil-rich monarchs, concerned with upholding their reigns while threatened by their own peoples.
Whatever the final result - a happy one if the dictator falls quickly, unhappy if it turns into a fiasco - this war which all Libyan opponents spontaneously approved is no less a trap. It is a trap for politics, for thought, for the world. There is hope that the Arab populations, in their momentum for freedom, will discover a means of turning this trap to their benefit, in a strategy of the weak against the strong. But there is no reason to jump into it head first with arms and legs tied, having lost all critical sense. Playing the game and gambling is one thing, but trickery is not allowed. Notably when it concerns the truth about events and the history of situations.
This article by Edwy Plenel was originally published in Mediapart's French pages on March 23rd, 2011.
English version by Patricia Brett and Graham Tearse
(Editing by Graham Tearse)