Bernard-Henri Levy (BHL) is France’s number one media intellectual (unflatteringly “TV philosopher”). In the no doubt edited interview above he gives a ten minute summary of his thoughts on the Brussels ISIS attack, Syria, Libya, European Democracy…. to BBC Newsnight on the 23rd March 2016.
Even though Levy is a stalwart Zionist, an insufficiently critical proponent of the Capitalist variant of Imperialism and worse still a larger than life “French Philosopher” it is still essential to listen to him. According to an American humourist “One advantage of talking to yourself is that you know at least somebody’s listening.” [*] This has become an essential virtue for the “progressive” Left, who insist on talking at great length to themselves. Listening to BHL would be seen as an error of ideological taste, and perhaps taint the listener as a secret Zionist.
BHL started in the late 1960s, when sympathy for Israel was at its zenith. Zionist propaganda surrounding the Six Day War of 1967 had been swallowed by the West. At the same time the disgusting post Second World War indifferent avoidance of the Holocaust was being challenged by a new generation. As part of the “New Philosophy” movement BHL rejected the hypocrisy of previous French philosophers who tolerated the intrinsic authoritarianism of Marxist-Leninism.
Since then BHL appears to have contradicted himself, and embraced the authoritarianism implicit in the foreign policies of the West, which are usually directed by self-interested elites. This includes BHL echoing Zionist quarter truths on the reality of Palestine-Israel. This does not mean his positions and insights can be logically or practically rejected as a block.
The interview begins with his thoughts on the terrorist attacks in Brussels. BHL says Europe is at war with ISIS. Then he strangely waffles on about ISIS wanting to commit mass murder on cities (metrocide).
It is self-evident that the West is officially at war with ISIS. Behind the scenes Western elites and their supporters within the security services find Islamic Extremism useful in restricting civil liberties. The authoritarian regimes in the Middle East support Islamic Extremism in order to suppress democratic opposition, and justify more oppression. It is a strange kind of war.
BHL continues that ISIS is a different kind of threat because it is based in a self-proclaimed state between Iraq and Syria. We must destroy the headquarters, the training camps, the planners and this will be the beginning of the end of ISIS.
BHL ignores the problem of the rights of Sunni Arabs in the area that borders Iraq and Syria. Their grievances have made the takeover of the area easier for ISIS. Russian and Western bombing is killing Sunni Arab civilians, either by indifference or accident. The Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shia Militias that are fighting ISIS have no interest in avoiding killing Sunni Arab civilians, and favour ethnic cleansing of the area. So fighting ISIS should be by local forces which have a connection to the Sunni Arabs who live in this part of Syria and Iraq.
The interviewer reminds him he was passionate about aiding the Libyan rebels, and asks if Libya without Gadhafi is an improved situation. He says the real comparison is between Libya where the English and French intervened, and Syria where we effectively “washed our hands”. He says if the Assad regime had been “punished” in 2013 for the use of chemical weapons, we would not have seen ISIS or the millions of refugees.
He is right to compare Western intervention in Libya with luke warm Western semi-intervention in Syria. He should also say the comparison is between “non-intervention”, “intervention” and “partnership (that empowers opposition movements)”. The problem with Libya is that the opposition was not empowered, and the English and French left as soon as Gadhafi was ousted. BHL also assumes the West intended regime change in 2013, and that the Syrian Opposition had the power to create a stable new regime.
BHL then says the idea of ISIS is that they want Islam as a block to fight the West as a block. There are right wing Islamophobic bigots in the West who want the same thing.
This is true, but he does not say that the motivation is not to beat the other side, but to maintain or gain authoritarian power over the people they claim to be protecting.
He then says his life was threatened by Islamist Extremists because they cannot stand anyone saying that “Islam as such is not evil” and there is “good Islam” which should be reinforced. This is more intolerable to them than a red neck Islamophobic bigot. Islam and Islamic Extremism are connected in some way, but the question is “what does it have to do [with Islam]?” This must be addressed by the wisest Muslims.
BHL appears to be patronising, and rather demeaning towards Islam. All the major religions are subject to fundamentalism. This is certainly true of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. There is something about all religions that allows this to happen, and the attributes that allow this naturally differ between religions. A cynic would say that the religions that prosper and survive must be adaptable to the power structures around them, and so although not corrupt must be inherently corruptible.
The interview then turns to the question of the decline of Europe. BHL says Europe may be dying, and the mistake of his generation was to assume the issue of Europe was settled. Presumably he means in the sense of a united stable peaceful democratic culture. He believes that instead of inevitable progress, there is a “backwards and forwards”. He lists symptoms of the decline of Europe as Greek financial crisis, Britain’s referendum on leaving Europe (Brexit), refugee crisis…. and says the collapse of the European Union would lead to more unemployment and misery for European peoples, and so more crisis.
It is true that European solidarity and democracy is under threat. The root cause is financial, with a problem that effects the whole Western world. There is unsustainable wealth inequality and debt. Democratic governments have surrendered their voters’ economic rights to uncontrollable international financial markets. The European Union has a democratic deficit, mostly because its component nations also have the same deficit. BHL does not say that crisis can lead nations to be locked into brutal authoritarianism, so there ceases to be a “backwards and forwards” of progress. Technological changes give more power to authoritarian regimes to efficiently control their populations, so making this process irreversible.
BHL is introduced at the beginning of the interview, as just coming back from making a film about the Kurdish Peshmerga in Kurdistan (autonomous region of Iraq). He is a committed Zionist, who like others, vigorously promotes Kurdish Nationalism for a people who have suffered a long history of oppression, including the genocide committed by Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s. Which includes the infamous Halabja Massacre of 1988 in which thousands of Kurdish civilians were killed by Sarin gas.
The Kurds span Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran so a united Kurdistan would spread geopolitical chaos. Europe had two world wars as a consequence of nineteenth century nationalism. A better solution are stable states that are inclusive and guarantee human rights, with self-administration rather than autonomy for regions with previously persecuted minorities. In addition, instead of an international “duty to protect”, an international “duty to empower oppressed peoples to protect themselves from aggression by their own authoritarian governments”. As an example of ultra-nationalism, Israel is hardly a model of progress. It is a military state, riven by racist apartheid, and constantly in aggressive disputes with other states.
In comparison to BHL, Obama believes that democracy in the Middle East and the Arab Spring is not linked to US national interests. He also found as US president that he could not change anything in his own country, even with a popular mandate. I wish he would connect the US democratic deficit, with the need to support democracy abroad, as a human virtue that strengthens us all. Perhaps BHL would do this job? BHL seems sound on diagnosing problems, but handle his solutions with care.
[*] Americans love proverbs, it goes back to the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin and the Almanacs of popular protestant literacy. No wonder they went on to create Twitter.