Coming from another Frenchman, the argument hardly would seem surprising: The war in Iraq was a tragic mistake that derailed the war on terror and damaged America’s image to a point where it now needs a major intellectual, moral and political shake-up to restore its credibility.
But when Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s most prominent “anti-anti-American,” laments the war in Iraq as evidence of the “hijacking of Bush’s brain” by neoconservatives, it is a sign of the malaise the Bush administration generates around the world, even among America’s admirers.
“This war has been so badly led, so badly planned, with so little knowledge of the terrain and so little political sense that all one can hope is that it will serve as a lesson,” Levy told the Forward during a wide-ranging interview in New York, where he was promoting his book “War, Evil and the End of History” (Melville House). “This war is a tragedy. It has achieved the exact contrary of its initial objective. People often call upon intellectuals to admit when they are wrong. I am waiting for the American leaders to say so. Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell, Wolfowitz would honor themselves if they would say so.”
However, Levy is still proud of his pro-American feelings and makes a point of warning his European peers about jumping on the bandwagon of anti-Americanism.
“Let’s not confuse the group of neoconservatives who have assaulted George Bush’s brain with America,” he said. “New York might not be America. But neither are those neocons.”
This is what makes Levy hopeful that the trans-Atlantic dispute is only temporary and the historical bonds between the two continents eventually will prevail.
“The best of America is culturally linked to Europe and the best of Europe refuses anti-Americanism and recognizes itself in American cosmopolitism,” he said. “You have a bunch of anti-French a—holes in the U.S. and, conversely, a small fascistic current in France that is very much into anti-U.S. rhetoric. But I don’t think they represent the majority on both continents.”
Levy rejected the notion that despite the crisis in Iraq, many American Jews will support Bush in November because of his pro-Israel positions. He claimed that most of those who cast their votes primarily according to a candidate’s position on Israel will vote against Bush because of the growing chaos in the Middle East and because of the president’s close ties to the Christian right.
“Those neo-evangelists love Israel because they want to make sure that the day the antichrist returns, he lands on Israeli rather than on Arab soil,” he said. “But this is not the true love of Israel.”
Levy strongly disagreed with the view that Jews in America and Europe were shifting to the political right because of events such as the September 11 attacks, the intifada, the beheadings of Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg and the wave of antisemitic incidents in France. Still, he acknowledged a widespread perception of a rightward shift among Jews, and said it was important to fight the “crazy logic that Zionism equals fascism, Jew equals rightist.”
“There are more and more people in the U.S., in Europe and in the world who see anti-Zionism not only as a legitimate idea but even a progressive one, although it is just the opposite,” he said. Reflecting on the September 2001 United Nations conference on racism and discrimination in South Africa, he added, “In Durban, we saw a terrifying international consensus forming around the idea that Zionism was the worst of all crimes.”
He rejected the proposition that the intifada and Ariel Sharon’s policies were fueling anti-Jewish sentiments.
“Unfortunately, there was no less antisemitism under [former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Barak,” he said. “What Sharon will do or won’t do only has a marginal effect on antisemitism. An Israel beyond reproach would not be less lonely than a guilty Israel.”
Levy cautioned against the world’s obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, noting that, for instance, suicide bombers were detonating themselves in Sri Lanka without thinking about Israel, and that Islam’s center of gravity was shifting toward Asia.
In particular, Pakistan — which he strongly attacked in his investigative novel, “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” — weighs on his mind.
Levy claimed that the disclosure in recent months of the existence of a major network of nuclear material smuggling to Iran, North Korea and Libya, masterminded by leading Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, had vindicated warnings he issued in his book about Pearl.
Moreover, he claimed to have evidence that Khan, as well as senior military officials, not only dealt with rogue states, but also had contacts with Al Qaeda, including Bin Laden.
“The weapons of mass destruction the Americans went to look for in Iraq, they are in Karachi, they are in Islamabad,” he said. “Not only that — they are in Islamabad in the hands of disciples of Osama bin Laden. It is a folly to have abandoned this adversary, it is a mistake of historic proportions.”
But Levy insists that focusing on the crises in Iraq, Israel and Pakistan is not enough. He is urging the West to address the “forgotten wars” such as the ones in Angola, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Burundi and Colombia, which constitute the basis of his latest book. In it, Levy uses his war reporting to reflect on philosophical questions such as the end of history or the false exaltation of war. Asked why anyone should care about those wars, Levy is blunt.
“If people do not want to see those damned of the earth alive, they will see them dead. If we don’t want to acknowledge their existence today, they will throw themselves at our feet, they will become human torches and join the ranks of the ever-growing kamikaze army,” he warned.
He points to Russia’s repression in Chechnya as a clear example of a war producing terrorism, with radical Islamic militants joining en masse what initially was a nationalistic struggle.
“I have been saying for years that if we don’t stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, we will have terrorists,” he said. “Now we have them. Putin is a terrorism factory.”
Learning how to address these forgotten wars — as well as the situation in Iraq and the Middle East — will require a dramatic rethinking of military intervention and America’s evolving role in the world, he stressed. With the 60th anniversary of D-Day approaching, Levy said he was struck by the contrast between the images of American soldiers then and now.
“What a difference between the image of the virtuous GI who used to enchant our mothers with his halo of glory and the pictures of those roughneck soldiers in Abu Ghraib,” he said. “This is a measure of what is going on in America today and of the urgent need for an intellectual, moral and political reform to change the course.”