Philosophes sans frontieres as Plato battles Nato (Financial Times, 1er Avril 2011)

FINANCIAL TIMESIt is a story straight from a Bond film. A man on a top-secret mission seeks a taxi to sneak across the Libyan border. Finding no willing drivers, he commandeers a vegetable truck and races through the desert for a clandestine tête-à-tête with the rebels. Yet this is no super-spy but the dapper philosophe and soi-disant diplomat, Bernard Henri-Lévy.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s deployment of “BHL” was a further coup de théâtre for France’s most telegenic Left Bank intellectual. But as the west ties itself in knots over the limits of its UN resolution, his gambit also provides clear justification for escalating the only truly Gallic military doctrine: liberal philosophical intervention.

Don’t be distracted by the leonine hair or the trademark tailored white shirts open to the navel. BHL’s arrival in theatre is realpolitik at its most sartorially elegant; the side of French strategic thinking that has always believed Nato must bow to Plato. All it took was a late-night satellite phone call after BHL’s rebel rendezvous, and talk of an imminent bloodbath staining the French flag, to spur Sarko into action.

But if this surgical strike was a triumph for la diplomatie française, it was a greater leap forward still for French philosophy. In times of war, la gauche would once have been stuck with Derrida deconstructing resolution 1973 or Baudrillard on Muammer’s modes of mediation. But with BHL in Benghazi, no one can claim the Libyan war doesn’t exist.

The news was a leap forward for philosophy more generally, too. Thinkers have chewed over the topic since Thomas Aquinas laid out the rules for a “just war”, but too many go soft once the shooting starts. Sourpuss pacifists such as Bertrand Russell might quip that “war does not determine who is right – only who is left”. But BHL knows that, philosophically speaking, stopping wars is much less fun than starting them.

The Anglo-Saxon powers are now outgunned and out-thought in this era of coercive philosophical diplomacy. Bogged down in the cul-de-sac of analytical philosophy, the Anglo-Saxon tradition provides little of military use at all.

At a push, David Cameron could match the French, bouffant for bouffant, and send A.C. Grayling behind enemy lines. But beyond this the options are slim: the sight of Alain de Botton on the back of a rebel pick-up truck would hardly strike fear into the colonel and his cronies.

For the US, the situation is worse still. Long gone are the days when the pamphlets of Thomas Paine inspired the Yankees to revolt. Now, this philosophically diminished power relies on politicians for gnomic mutterings on the unknown knowns.

In short, this is one area of military endeavour where La France stands supreme. He is better known for appearing in Paris Match, but BHL’s anti-totalitarianism lies in a tradition stretching from Zola and the Dreyfusards to André Malraux in the Spanish civil war. Put another way, if we are to have hope of ousting Col Gaddafi, we must forget the vicissitudes of the Arab League – and get the spirit of the soixainte-huitards back in the game.

Indeed, who better to negotiate? Col Gaddafi wants to be taken seriously as a thinker, even forcing all Libyans to read his Green Book. In attempts to end the conflict, the west will be tempted to make him an offer he can’t refuse. BHL can do better – and make him an offer he can’t understand.

True, his reputation as an interlocutor is not untarnished. His essay On War in Philosophy was ridiculed last year in Parisian salon society: it quoted Jean-Baptiste Botul’s The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant – seemingly unaware that Mr Botul (and his school of botulisme) is a hoax. Still, even weakness can become strength across the negotiating table: what better topic to break the ice with noted plagiarist, Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi?

Even so, we must be realistic. Hot-air strikes alone cannot control events on the ground. Gaddafi Jr might not play ball. And the campaign now faces that most existential of military dilemmas: no exit strategy. Faced with such problems, Gauloises on the ground can only go so far. It may be that a full-scale philosophical invasion is the only solution.

Yet even here there are options. Mr Henri-Lévy was once accused by Jean-Paul Sartre of being a CIA agent. With luck, the charge may even be true: a mix of espionage and epistemology, Bond and BHL, could just prise the Mad Dog from his lair. But even if not, we must stay philosophical. God is dead but Col Gaddafi is still going strong. Until that changes, we should let the thinkers do the fighting.

By James Crabtree


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