New York Magazine:

Somehow, earlier this year, a philosopher managed to goad the world into vanquishing an evil villain. Perhaps more surprising was the philosopher in question: the man French society loves to mock, Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Celebrity doesn’t always travel well. The conditions it depends upon can be too local, too conditional. Try explaining Kim Kardashian to the Germans; try asking the Germans to explain David Hasselhoff to us. Still, the case of the famously self-regarding, righteous, impeccably coiffed French philosopher and media personality Bernard-Henri Lévy is singularly strange. The events of the past year—in which Lévy, operating freelance, seemed to prompt a broke and crumbling Europe into a humanitarian war in Libya—so obviously belong to a different era that Lévy has left in his wake a torrent of historical analogies: Perhaps he is Lawrence of Arabia, as a friendly French review recently suggested. Or perhaps he is Don Quixote.

One year ago, influence like this appeared far beyond Lévy’s reach. He has long been France’s most famous living philosopher, and was once an important one, but his media and social profile eclipsed his intellectual reputation. He was still suffering from the highly embarrassing Botul episode of 2010, in which Lévy had happened upon a philosophical spoof and, assuming it to be serious, cited its arguments as part of a critique of Immanuel Kant. (He had missed the crucial clue, which was that the fake philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, was elaborating a philosophy called Botulism.) His journalism was often called glib, and his big 2006 book on America had been panned on the front page of the New York Times’ Sunday book review. When I called scholars of European ideas at Harvard and Columbia to talk about Lévy, they dismissed him as overhyped and irrelevant, respectively. At the beginning of 2011, Lévy was most frequently in the French press for his New York mistress, the heiress Daphne Guinness, who kept up a public theater of pining for him on Twitter.

But, as Lévy told me recently, “sometimes you are inhabited by intuitions that are not clear to you.” On February 23, the philosopher was in Cairo watching television images of Muammar Qaddafi’s retribution against the rebel towns around Benghazi, which the dictator and his sons had threatened to drown in “rivers of blood.” Lévy is most fully himself in stark humanitarian crises, when defending what he calls “the memory of the worst.” He is also the heir to a vast timber fortune, wealth that allows him a license to act on his instincts, and so he promptly found the name of rebel leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, arranged for a cameraman and for a private plane to fly him near the front, and within a few hours was in a hired car, driving off to war.

Lévy was a veteran of mass killing; he had seen it in a half-dozen conflicts, maybe, and driving through the desert towns east of Benghazi, he detected its early signs: blood-smeared walls, passersby wrapping themselves in hoods to keep their lungs free of contaminants. He foresaw a “crawling tragedy. Thirty, 40 dead a day. Maybe worse.” In Benghazi, Lévy spent the hour before their meeting frantically Googling Abdel-Jalil and leaping up to greet anyone walking past who might be the Libyan. When Abdel-Jalil did arrive (“short with a modest smile and the look of a stunned falcon”), Lévy had prepared his speech. “The world is watching,” he began. It was pompous, he realized, but “you have to say something.” He compared Benghazi to the Warsaw Ghetto, to Sarajevo. “Benghazi is the capital not only of Libya but of free men and women all over the world,” Lévy told the rebel leader.

“In the back of his mind, I’m sure, was the idea that I might be a fly-by-night,” Lévy wrote in his diary, “or delusional.” Indeed. Lévy told Abdel-Jalil that he could fly a rebel delegation to Paris on his plane and get them an audience with French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The rebels were badly outgunned, and Abdel-Jalil did not at this moment have a ton of other suitors. He agreed.

The philosopher had barely spoken with Sarkozy in three years and had rather loudly opposed the president’s election. Lévy got so stressed thinking about the call that he developed a migraine, but he phoned the presidential palace anyway and was promptly put through. The call dropped three times; it wasn’t a great connection. But the president agreed to meet with the Libyans, and the next Thursday they were all in his office in Paris, ringed by Sarkozy’s advisers.

Everyone was awkward. The Libyans asked Sarkozy to assassinate Qaddafi. This was impossible. Lévy sensed that the rebels misunderstood their own case: “So maladroit, so not skilled, did not know the cause.” Lévy had sat down privately with Sarkozy the previous day and, grappling for a line of argument, wound up with rhetoric; if there was a massacre in Benghazi, he said, “the blood of the massacred will stain the French flag.” Sarkozy seemed to buy it. At the meeting with the rebels, the French president pledged a bombardment if he could secure the cooperation of the allies. In Lévy’s account, as the meeting emptied, Sarkozy said to him, “Feel free to, uh, say what you saw and heard.” Outside, Lévy told reporters that France would recognize the rebels as the Libyan government; he mentioned that “targeted operations” would come soon. Le Monde, bewildered, noted that the philosopher seemed to have taken the job of governmental spokesman. The man officially in charge of French foreign affairs—Alain Juppé, the foreign minister—was in Brussels at the time; he would later reportedly threaten to resign over the end run.

Things came together rapidly, for a war. Four days later, Lévy was flying a rebel general onto the freezing tarmac at Le Bourget, the Teterboro of Paris, for a meeting he had brokered with Hillary Clinton, and soon the Americans were committed; a few days later, Sarkozy called Lévy to tell him that the U.N. Security Council was in agreement. “I am proud of my country,” Lévy told his president. On March 19, the intervention began. Sarkozy had just done what Lévy had spent three decades urging politicians to do—had used the West’s military power to help avert an impending massacre. Lévy was quick to point out, to anyone who asked, that this would not alter his opposition to Sarkozy’s bid for reelection.

This is the story that Lévy has since unfurled, bannerlike, against a backdrop of official no-comments. Through reports in Le Monde, the countervailing perspective of the French bureaucracy has since emerged: They were planning a Libyan intervention all along, and Lévy’s actions were a sideshow. But the circumstantial evidence inclines Lévy’s way. For the war’s six-month duration, Lévy was Sarkozy’s exhorter and confessor in Paris, at crucial moments taking three calls a day from the French president, and his tour guide in Tripoli. “They say they had plans,” Lévy told me. “Okay, why not? It is a defense ministry. They have plans for literally everything: invading Vanuatu, repelling Mauritius, and so on.” He shrugged. “So?”

Wars are no longer supposed to begin like this. They are exercises in national interest and self-defense, not personal morality and valor. They are the product of military plans, not proddings from celebrity philosophers. And yet Libya—so far the most aggressive humanitarian intervention of the 21st century—depended not on any broad public movement nor any urgent security threat. There was instead a chain of private conversations: Hillary Clinton moving Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy moving Dmitri Medvedev, and at the chain’s inception this romantic propagandist, Bernard-Henri Lévy. “I think this war was probably launched by two statesmen,” Lévy told me. “Hillary Clinton and Sarkozy. More modestly, me.”…

Read it all.

Foreign Policy:

For the first time in Syria’s nine-month-old uprising, there are witnesses to President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown, which according to the United Nations has claimed more than 5,000 lives. Arab League observers arrived in the country on Dec. 26, and traveled to the city of Homs — the epicenter of the revolt, where the daily death toll regularly runs into the dozens, according to activist groups — on Dec. 27. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against Assad upon the observers’ arrival, while activists said Syrian tanks withdrew from the streets only hours before the Arab League team entered the city.

“I am going to Homs,” insisted Sudanese Gen. Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, the head of the Arab League observer mission, telling reporters that so far the Assad regime had been “very cooperative.”

But Dabi may be the unlikeliest leader of a humanitarian mission the world has ever seen. He is a staunch loyalist of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity for his government’s policies in Darfur. And Dabi’s own record in the restive Sudanese region, where he stands accused of presiding over the creation of the feared Arab militias known as the “janjaweed,” is enough to make any human rights activist blanch.

Dabi’s involvement in Darfur began in 1999, four years before the region would explode in the violence that Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled as “genocide.” Darfur was descending into war between the Arab and Masalit communities — the same fault line that would widen into a bloodier interethnic war in a few years’ time. As the situation escalated out of control, Bashir sent Dabi to Darfur to restore order.

According to Julie Flint and Alex De Waal’s Darfur: A New History of a Long War, Dabi arrived in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, on Feb. 9, 1999, with two helicopter gunships and 120 soldiers. He would stay until the end of June. During this time, he would make an enemy of the Masalit governor of West Sudan. Flint and De Waal write:

Governor Ibrahim Yahya describes the period as ‘the beginning of the organization of the Janjawiid’, with [Arab] militia leaders like Hamid Dawai and Shineibat receiving money from the government for the first time. ‘The army would search and disarm villages, and two days later the Janjawiid would go in. They would attack and loot from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., only ten minutes away from the army. By this process all of Dar Masalit was burned.’

Yahya’s account was supported five years later by a commander of the Sudan Liberation Army, a rebel organization movement in the region. “[T]hings changed in 1999,” he told Flint and De Waal. “The PDF [Popular Defense Forces, a government militia] ended and the Janjawiid came; the Janjawiid occupied all PDF places.”

Dabi provided a different perspective on his time in Darfur, but it’s not clear that he disagrees on the particulars of how he quelled the violence. He told Flint and De Waal that he provided resources to resolve the tribes’ grievances, and employed a firm hand to force the leaders to reconcile — “threatening them with live ammunition when they dragged their feet,” in the authors’ words. “I was very proud of the time I spent in Geneina,” Dabi said…

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The New Atlantis:

In the past two years, protesters against authoritarian regimes have begun to heavily use social-networking and media services, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and cell phones, to organize, plan events, propagandize, and spread information outside the channels censored by their national governments. Those governments, grappling with this new threat to their holds on power, have responded by trying to unplug cyberspace.

Some examples: In April 2009, angry young Moldovans stormed government and Communist Party offices protesting what they suspected was a rigged election; authorities discontinued Internet service in the capital. In Iran, the regime cracked down on protesters objecting to fraudulent election outcomes in June 2009 by denying domestic access to servers and links, and by slowing down Internet service generally — although protesters and their supporters found ways around those restrictions. In Tunisia, when protests against President Zine el Abidine ben Ali escalated in December 2010, his government sought to deny Twitter services in the country and hacked the Facebook accounts of some Tunisian users in order to acquire their passwords. In Egypt, amid mass protests in Cairo and several other cities in January 2011, Hosni Mubarak’s government attempted to disconnect the Internet. But there, too, protesters found limited workarounds until the doomed regime eventually restored some services.

Authoritarians may have reason to fear cyberspace. It is widely believed that the proliferation of Internet access and other communications technologies empowers individuals and promotes democracy and the spread of liberty, usually at the expense of centralized authority. As Walter Wriston optimistically put it in his 1992 book The Twilight of Sovereignty: “As information technology brings the news of how others live and work, the pressures on any repressive government for freedom and human rights will soon grow intolerable because the world spotlight will be turned on abuses and citizens will demand their freedoms.”

Two decades later, the hope that cyberspace will promote international peace and cooperation shines brighter than ever. To this end, the Obama administration has undertaken a project to promote its vision of cyberspace around the world. It was launched with the 2009 announcement in Morocco of the “Civil Society 2.0 Initiative,” a collection of efforts to help grassroots organizations use cyberspace to advance their goals. As the president explained at a 2009 forum in Shanghai, responding to a question about Internet censorship, “The more open we are, the more we can communicate. And it also helps to draw the world together.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed this sentiment in a 2010 speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., arguing that the Internet can help bridge differences between religious groups and create “one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all.” In addition, she noted, there are the practical economic benefits of connectivity: cyberspace has become a critical ingredient for economic growth — “an on-ramp to modernity” — often by enabling producers to specialize and open new markets, and by generally improving productivity. Secretary Clinton further declared her intent to place Internet freedom on the agenda of the United Nations Human Rights Council; launch a program to use cyberspace to “empower citizens and leverage our traditional diplomacy” in cooperation with industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations; and strengthen the Global Internet Freedom Task Force formed during the Bush administration.

Since then, the Obama administration has promoted cooperation with the private firms that own and operate the Internet’s infrastructure in hopes of establishing standards to promote freedom in cyberspace; it has protested diplomatically when foreign states impinge on their citizens’ free use of the Internet; and it has resisted foreign attempts to transfer Internet governance from technical organizations to political organizations, most notably to the United Nations. Meanwhile, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor issued $5 million in grants to private organizations developing technologies to enable unrestricted access to the Internet and secure communications over mobile devices. The department hopes to issue $30 million more.

Secretary Clinton’s Newseum speech, and a follow-up address she delivered in early 2011 at George Washington University, are important not only because of the initiatives they launched, but also because they articulate the administration’s perception of cyberspace’s role in international relations. Central to this view is

the freedom to connect — the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the Internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate.

Indeed, Clinton equated the “freedom to connect” with the freedom of expression and association as codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While well-intentioned, the administration’s efforts to advance the cause of “Internet freedom” as a human right should raise some concerns. First, despite the admirable desire to apply the nation’s enduring principles to the rapidly evolving realm of high technology, framing “Internet freedom” as a human right risks weakening the very concept of human rights. Further, by lending its prestige and credibility to the international cause of Internet freedom, the U.S. government may actually make it more likely that tyrannical regimes will crack down on the Internet…

Read it all.

The GOP Chase, 2011

December 28, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

It’s A Wonderful Life, 2011

December 28, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

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