DISTINGUISHED RECORD

12.02.12

Bernard-Henri Lévy on Susan Rice’s Role in the Libyan War for Justice

Amid all the partisan accusations about Susan Rice’s statements after the murder of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi, we easily forget her indispensable role in bringing down Gaddafi.

The scene is a conversation in Washington between Sen. John McCain and myself at the 2012 Foreign Policy Initiative Forum.

McCain is an affable man. Deliberate.

With his distinguished military record, his style, his proud bearing—the way he seems unable to conceive of conducting politics without reference to principles and values—he makes a nice change from Mitt Romney, embodying the best that the Republican Party has to offer.

The debate was going pretty well up to the moment when, in response to a remark by McCain to the effect that it was France, not the United States, that had taken the lead in dealing with Syria, Mali, and, of course, Libya, I responded (courteously but firmly) that nothing would have been possible without France’s fraternal alliance with the United States. Then I added a small phrase that cast a strange pall over the proceedings. “In Libya,” I said, “three women saved the day: Obama’s adviser, Samantha Power; his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton; and his ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.”

I was unaware at that moment that McCain had just left a meeting where, together with Sens. Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, he had been grilling Rice—and that in the course of that meeting he had rejected the possibility of supporting her nomination as secretary of state to succeed Clinton.

It was also true (I was a little more aware of this than of the preceding fact) that our discussion was taking place at a moment when a growing number of observers (including an unsigned editorial in The Wall Street Journal on Nov. 16) were attempting to sow doubt not only about the success but also about the wisdom of the just war waged in Libya by our two countries with support from the United Kingdom and the Arab League.

On the first point—that is, the reproach leveled against Rice for having knowingly withheld information about the terrorist nature of the attack on Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi—I may not have all the information. But I cannot help but wonder about the origin of this conspiracy theory. I find rather ridiculous the idea that the Obama administration acted as it did to avoid alarming the public on the eve of a close election. Was it not possible that Rice may not yet have had all the facts? Is it not possible that the CIA’s own analysis was still evolving? And is it not possible that in reproaching Rice for her caution in handling hot information that no government releases carelessly or totally transparently, the nominee is being given a hasty trial or—what amounts to the same thing—a baldly partisan trial in anticipation of the 2016 election, with Clinton as the real target?

I remember how Susan Rice, as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, fervently advocated for the protection Libyan civilians against Gaddafi.

On the second point—that is, on the question of the wisdom of the war itself—I vividly recall the day (March 17, 2011) when the vote on the resolution to authorize emergency assistance for the civilian population of Benghazi was hanging by a thread, one strong strand of which was the will of America’s outgoing secretary of state. I recall the evening, three days earlier in Paris, when, with the exception of Sarkozy, Cameron, and a few others, the world’s leaders had already washed their hands of the rivers of blood that Gaddafi had promised his people. It was then that I brought Mahmoud Jibril, then prime minister of the National Transitional Council, to see Clinton; I recall her emotion, her resolution, the pressure that she exerted at the time against her country’s military leaders in favor of the French position: in other words, I remember how this woman helped save Libya and the honor of the West. (Just as I remember how Rice, as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, fervently advocated protecting Libyan civilians.)

And today?

Contrary to the predictions of the naysayers, Libya has not split into three loosely federated parts.

With a few glaring and very terribly unfortunate exceptions, Gaddafi’s supporters have not been subjected to retaliatory justice, let alone to the sort of widespread vendetta that several great countries, including France, have exhibited in the not-too-distant past.

The radical Islamists lost the elections.

Contrary to predictions, tribal law has not gained the upper hand over the feeling of national unity that was forged in the heat of the struggle against Gaddafi.

Video screenshot

Eli Lake wonders whether it might be better for Susan Rice to become DNC chair.

When a gang of masked savages killed Ambassador Stevens, thousands of civilians, their faces uncovered, poured into the streets to demand that the assassins be punished, that the militias be disarmed, that the truth be discovered about the act, and that justice be done for the crime.

As for the prime minister who emerged from the first free elections that Libya has ever had, a man who faces the daunting task of building, from almost nothing, a police force, an army, a government, and even a civil society—that individual, Ali Zeidan, is a man who has devoted his life to the defense of human rights, a man who is the very embodiment of a moderate and democratic Islam, an Islam open to the West, one that all of us would like to see prevail.

Libya’s democratic revolution will not be completed in a day.

It will suffer other upsets and reversals, and pass through other convulsions.

We will probably have occasion to regret that those who stood with Libya during its war of liberation are no longer present, no longer active, during its reconstruction.

But for the time being, it is a fact that Libya, compared with Tunisia and Egypt, gives every appearance of having passed through a successful spring. Those who helped it get there can be proud of what they have done. 

Translated by the French by Steven B. Kennedy