Why Sarkozy Went to War

Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Bernard-Henri Levy Eric Feferberg / AFP-Getty Images (left); Patrick Kovarik / AFP-Getty Images

In their favored haunts all across the city, at the bar of the Hotel Raphael near the Arc de Triomphe, in the tearooms of the Lutetia on the Left Bank and the Bristol on the Right Bank—a long way, in short, from the carnage in the Libyan desert—the Paris literati are bantering nonstop about the nuances of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's somewhat puzzling decision to lead their country and the Western world to war. Not a few have been amused, or chagrined, or both, to learn that one of their own, the ever-so-flamboyant (some would say insufferable) philosophe Bernard-Henri Lévy had a pivotal role in prompting the allies' intervention. As he settles into the Raphael's dark red-velvet upholstery, the man commonly known as BHL—by far the most controversial public intellectual in France—allows that he might well write something about it himself.

Any such account will, inevitably, lay out the moral case for protecting civilians from a tyrant. But the more one learns of the inside story of the war's inception, as told by people close to Sarkozy, the clearer it is why U.S. President Barack Obama seemed wary of this alliance from the first. Early in the Libyan no-fly-zone operation, White House aides shied away from what they called "Sarkozy's war" and were glad to let France have the glory—or blame. Later, under the NATO command structure agreed to last week, they spread responsibility around so widely it was hard to know who the White House thought was in charge. Press Secretary Jay Carney spoke of a "group effort," saying, "It's not a question of, you know, who gets credit."

That's how the whole war has gone, swiveling and teetering like a weather vane in a storm. And what may be most surprising about Sarkozy is that he seems to have held his course. Day to day, sometimes hour to hour, the battle lines have lurched back and forth along Libya's coastal highway, and the action behind the scenes has been similarly bipolar. At one critical moment, a delegate from the anti-Gaddafi Libyans was delayed for hours at a Paris airport after flying from Qatar for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Late that night, when they finally sat down together, Clinton stuck to her approved talking points, refusing to make any promises of support. The Libyan emerged "drunk with rage," as one witness recalls. Yet in the days that followed, Clinton put enormous effort behind the critical U.N. resolution approving all necessary means to protect Libya's civilians. She'd been talking to Sarkozy.

Again and again, the story comes back to the French president. Aside from mad Muammar Gaddafi, no character in this drama is so enigmatic or so compelling. "He's everything people say about him—unpredictable, impulsive—and at the same time he's the contrary," suggests playwright Yasmina Reza (Art, God of Carnage), who spent a year following Sarkozy on the campaign trail for her book-length sketch of him, Dawn Dusk or Night. Although his moods change for all the world to see, she says, deep down there's nothing transparent. During the effort to build a coalition for the action in Libya, as Sarkozy struggled to keep the Arabs on board, fend off German opposition, and rein in his own cabinet, his moods shifted from dark and silent to excited and on the top of his game "like he was 14," in the words of a close friend.

Sarkozy has at least one painfully obvious reason to want this war: his recent polls have been down in the 20s, the lowest ever for a French head of state. He's up for reelection next year with no support on the left and a potent challenger, Marine Le Pen, on the far right. But Reza doesn't believe it's about that. "He is smart, but not a cynic," she says. "For me, he has something that is perhaps more dangerous than cynicism—what might be called serial attachments." He embraces a cause passionately, but then his attention moves on. It's a quality that Reza's book describes as "childlike." Author and literary critic Pierre Assouline, who knew Sarkozy as a teenager, says "he has not changed."

Yet for all that, few who are familiar with the French president—whether friend or foe—question Sarkozy's concern for the Libyan protesters. "Even among the Socialists, everybody recognized that he did what should be done," says a leading party operative, ordinarily no fan of Sarkozy's. The French on the street are not so kind. Polls taken since the intervention suggest he still may not make it past the first round when he runs for reelection—if he manages to get nominated at all. Two thirds of the public approve what he's done in Libya, but his personal numbers remain abysmal. "The French people do not like him," says a veteran of the presidential press corps. "They just do not like him."

Last week, as the Libyan rebels he's embraced veered between exaltation and near annihilation, Sarkozy made himself scarce, setting off on a long-scheduled Asia trip to preside at a meeting of the G20. Allied foreign ministers gathered in London to discuss Libya, but France's role seemed suddenly and weirdly minor in his absence. NATO took command from the Americans; the British were holding the floor, and allied airstrikes on Gaddafi's forces abruptly slowed down. U.S. officials blamed the weather. A NATO spokeswoman insisted the pace had not diminished. But that wasn't how it looked on the ground. After the dictator's heavy weaponry once again reversed rebel gains near the strategic town of Brega, routed insurgents shouted to a BBC correspondent: "Where is Sarkozy? Where is Sarkozy?"

From the uprising's outset, the French president's objective was to take down Gaddafi, says an intelligence source close to him. "We almost decided to do it ourselves," he adds. The French have a long history of unilateral interventions in Africa, including against Gaddafi in Chad in the 1980s. This time, however, they quickly found partners. The British under Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron were very much on board. So were the leading members of the Arab League, who had their own grudges against Gaddafi. But Sarkozy seemed practically obsessed. It's worth remembering that he once made a mission of bringing Gaddafi into the world's good graces. Just weeks after Sarkozy's election in 2007, the new French president outbid his European partners to ransom five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had been imprisoned in Libya for eight years and threatened with execution. Later that year, clearly hoping for huge contracts from a supposedly rehabilitated Gaddafi, Sarkozy spent almost a week playing host to him, only to be humiliated daily by the Libyan leader's outlandish demands. Gaddafi pitched his famous tent next to the presidential palace, at the 19th-century Hôtel de Marigny, and when Gaddafi decided to visit the Louvre on the spur of the moment, Sarkozy ordered the whole museum cleared. Still, the really big contracts did not materialize. He could certainly be excused if he hoped to wipe that history clean by helping Libyans to get rid of their dictator.

But you can't just support an uprising. You need somebody to call, and as the revolt grew, Sarkozy had no idea who could speak for the new Libya. At just that moment, BHL, the philosopher, rang the Élysée Palace switchboard to tell the president he'd decided to go to the rebel capital of Benghazi. Sarkozy told BHL to let him know if he found any leaders among the fighters, and the self-styled intellectual swashbuckler needed no further encouragement. From Bosnia to Afghanistan, Iraq to Pakistan, BHL has always taken the side of those he saw as oppressed—and never failed to promote himself in the process. "BHL did the usual," says a close friend of Sarkozy. "You know, 'Save this! Save that!' But he did manage to push the system to do something that cannot now be undone."

Sarkozy and BHL have known each other since 1983, and they used to be good friends. They went skiing together in Alpe d'Huez and vacationed on the Riviera at Beaulieu and Antibes. When BHL was pushing for intervention in Bosnia in the early 1990s, Sarkozy (back then only a relatively junior minister in the cabinet of then–prime minister Édouard Balladur) took BHL's side against formidable opponents like Alain Juppé, who was (and is again) France's minister of foreign affairs.

The friendship turned icy during Sarkozy's 2007 presidential run. BHL backed the Socialist candidate and, adding ink to injury, published the story of Sarkozy's failed efforts to recruit him. "Now I hear the clannish, feudal, possibly brutal Sarkozy that his opponents have denounced, and which I never wanted to believe in," BHL wrote: "A man with a warrior vision of politics, who hystericizes relations, believes that those who aren't with him are against him, who doesn't care about ideas, who thinks interpersonal relations and friendship are the only things that matter."

It took years to mend that rift, and even as BHL took off for Libya last month the relationship remained uneasy. It was a mission on a wing and a prayer: for once in his career, the inveterate networker knew no one in the country where he was headed. In the dark early hours of March 1, BHL and a couple of friends crossed from Egypt into Libya through an everyman's land of refugees, mostly African workers who had fled the fighting and now had nowhere to go. BHL hitched a ride in a vegetable vendor's panel truck.

In Benghazi, the protesters seemed to be losing the revolutionary fervor that had enabled them over the previous two weeks to seize half the populated areas of the country almost without weapons. "What I smelled was the democratic revolution cooling down," BHL recalls. At the same time, Gaddafi's forces had begun to regroup for a counteroffensive. At the Hotel Tibesti, the haven in Benghazi for the international press, word spread that the opposition was organizing an Interim National Transitional Council, and BHL, who'd been liberally dropping names, including Sarkozy's, got himself invited to address the group.

They met in an opulent but totally empty old villa by the Mediterranean. BHL introduced himself as a personal friend of Sarkozy and said he could arrange a meeting. Council chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil accepted the proposition, and BHL began trying to call Paris on an old satellite phone that kept cutting out. He finally got through, and Sarkozy agreed to meet a delegation. That was a huge achievement. But the rebels said it wasn't enough: they wanted full diplomatic recognition before sending anyone to Paris. When BHL relayed that message to the Élysée, a Sarkozy aide said, "Impossible." Undeterred, BHL called the president himself, who turned out to be more amenable. A few hours later the Élysée publicly saluted the creation of the Libyan national council. Jalil was satisfied. Arrangements for the visit went ahead. Two days later, on Monday, March 7, BHL was back in Paris, meeting with Sarkozy. The president had decided to take the extraordinary step of recognizing the rebels' government the following Thursday. Then BHL took an extraordinary step of his own. He asked Sarkozy to keep the whole thing a secret from the Germans, who were already expressing reservations about supporting the Libyan uprising—and also from Foreign Minister Juppé.

The president balked, calling the foreign minister "a good guy" and "loyal," but BHL reminded him of the way Juppé had undermined his efforts to save the Bosnians. "He will throw a wrench in the works," said BHL. Which is why France's foreign minister was getting off a train in Brussels when he first heard that a rebel delegation had not only met with Sarkozy but gotten recognition as Libya's sole legitimate representatives.

Sarkozy had bragged to the Libyans that he'd have no problem persuading the European Union to back his play. But at a summit in Brussels the next day, he found "the door slammed in his face," says a friend. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to distance herself from French bellicosity, and, following her lead, the German press branded Sarkozy and BHL "a pair of egomaniacs." The French president also took a pounding from Panorama, one of the magazines owned by Gaddafi's best friend in Europe, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The cover showed Sarkozy dressed as a demented Napoleon. Meanwhile, Juppé was left to soldier on in the diplomatic trenches, working with several disgruntled allies to get the all-important imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council.

As the rebels at Brega demanded: where is Sarkozy? Last week, while U.S. officials and members of Congress debated who the rebels are and whether to train and arm them, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress that the Obama administration doesn't want such tasks. "As far as I'm concerned, somebody else can do that." That somebody is France, which, according to sources close to the Élysée, now has trainers on the ground and is sending in munitions by sea as well as attacking Gaddafi's military from the air. It's still very much Sarkozy's war.

With Daniel Stone in Washington